BRYN ATHYN, Pa. - Known to generations of Philadelphia schoolchildren only as "the castle," Glencairn mansion was the subject of stories more outlandish than the worst low-budget horror flicks.
The tall tales of monsters and madmen lurching through the halls of the grand suburban home of industrialist Raymond Pitcairn, however, are far less interesting than what really exists behind the walls of the soaring Romanesque structure: one of the most prized private collections of medieval art in the world.
"This is a significant and spectacular collection that people who live right in the area are essentially unaware of," said Michael Cothren, an art history professor at Swarthmore College. "The strength of Glencairn’s collection is the architectural arts from the 12th and 13th centuries, and it has some of the greatest works produced in that time."
Glencairn was built between 1928 and 1939 under the direction of Pitcairn, heir to the Pittsburgh Plate Glass fortune. A lawyer by trade, Pitcairn had started collecting antiquities in the 1910s to inspire craftsmen who were building the dramatic Gothic- and Romanesque-style Bryn Athyn Cathedral.
"Pitcairn was interested in fostering a revival of the traditions of craftsmanship that existed in the Middle Ages," said Walter Benedict Cahn, Yale University art history professor emeritus. "He was something of a pioneer in collecting this kind of art."
After the cathedral’s completion, work began on Glencairn. It eventually became home to Pitcairn, his wife, Mildred, and their nine children, as well as a repository for his massive collections.
The priceless collection of antiquities includes authentic 12th-century stained-glass panels from the Abbey Church of St. Denis outside Paris, 15th-century French manuscripts, Spanish reliquary boxes, ancient Egyptian ceremonial bowls and Islamic prayer rugs. Ancient statues and finials are built into walls and over doorways and are exhibited in rooms throughout the sprawling stone structure.
The medieval stained glass is significant because many examples from European churches were destroyed during World War II, Cothren said. Pitcairn did most of his collecting from the 1910s to the 1930s.
Artisans from Europe and the United States created glass, mosaics, masonry and wood carvings for Glencairn that blend seamlessly with the ancient arts and crafts that fill the home.
The vast, arched Great Hall - once the Pitcairns’ family room - features full-scale replicas of the windows in Chartes Cathedral; Pitcairn got permission to erect scaffolding in front of the French cathedral’s enormous windows and make rubbings.
When Mildred Pitcairn died in 1979, 13 years after Raymond Pitcairn, Glencairn was turned over to the Church of the New Jerusalem. The Pitcairns were devout members of the church, whose members follow the Bible-based teachings of 18th-century Swedish theologian and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.
Glencairn opened to the public in 1982 for tours, lifting a decades-old veil of mystery. Pitcairn was a private man who invited only the closest friends and colleagues to Glencairn.
"Very little was known about what" Pitcairn "had until the late ’60s. ... Very few people were ever invited to see what was there," Cahn said. "As a small religious group, I think there understandably was concern about the ambient culture and the potential for the infiltration of the outskirts into their community."
Now, about 18,000 visitors annually go to Glencairn, and caretakers of the home-turned-museum hope to make it even more accessible by running tours on Saturdays.
Its mission is to serve as a "museum of religious history," spokesman Rueben Bell said. "We’re a place where religion, history and art come together."
Also worth noting at Glencairn are the group photographs that remain on tables and shelves and show a family that played, danced, worshipped and celebrated holidays surrounded by works of art.
"Before this was a museum, it was a home," Bell said. "That’s something we don’t forget."
Reprinted by permission of Associated Press.