“A Hill of Unity: The Founding of Bryn Athyn Borough”

Glencairn Museum News | Number 4, 2016

Ivan, Gabriele and Nathan Pitcairn make daisy chain crowns down the hill from Bryn Athyn Cathedral. Raymond, their father, was the photographer (circa 1917).

Figure 1: After an initial purchase of 84 acres in 1889, John Pitcairn, a wealthy industrialist and member of the Philadelphia congregation, continued to acquire land for the New Church community, including hundreds of acres from Charles Holt, James Marsh and other farmers in the immediate vicinity. In the 1890s the congregation began holding summer worship services and meetings on Knight’s Hill, the future site of Cairnwood, Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn (pictured here circa 1891). Photo: Glencairn Museum Archives.

The origins of the New Church lie in the 18th century with the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), a Swedish scientist, philosopher and Christian theologian. Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, was founded as a religious community by the Philadelphia branch of the General Church of the Advent, an international New Church organization. The Philadelphia branch included both a congregation and the Academy of the New Church schools.

During the late 19th century Philadelphia, like other large cities, experienced the effects of increasing pollution, disease, crime and traffic congestion. As early as 1880 groups from the Academy of the New Church in Philadelphia sometimes rode the train to Alnwick Grove park for recreational outings. The park was located along the Pennypack Creek, between the Alnwick Grove and Huntingdon Valley stations. According to an 1879 newspaper article, the park, which was created by the railroad, featured “a commodious pavilion for dancing purposes, and a large number of tables and seats for the convenience of excursionists and picnic parties” (Figure 4).

Carrie Holt’s diary (Figure 2) paints a remarkable picture of late 19th-century farm life in the area soon to be named Bryn Athyn. In 1891 her parents, Charles and Mary Holt, were in the process of selling the family’s farm in Huntingdon Valley to John Pitcairn through the agency of Robert Glenn, a close friend of Pitcairn’s who owned a real estate business. She mentions threshing oats, making a pig pen, killing a hog, making scrapple, sewing, cutting wood, and getting goods ready for market. Interestingly, Robert Glenn brought Ezra Knight, a former neighbor of the Holts, on one of his visits. The Knight farm, which was adjacent to the Holt farm, had been bought by Pitcairn two years earlier.


Figure 2: “These Sweden-Bordian [sic] are trying to buy all the place around . . .” This statement was recorded on December 9, 1891, in the diary of twenty-five-year-old Carrie K. Holt. The diary is on loan to Glencairn Museum from the Old York Road Historical Society.


In 1891 a vote was taken and the decision was made to establish a New Church community in Huntingdon Valley. Here members of the congregation could live healthier and more restful lives in the country as neighbors, with their children playing together and walking to New Church schools. In 1893 a plan for the New Church settlement was drawn up by the nationally renowned landscape architecture firm of Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot. (Frederick Law Olmsted had earlier designed Central Park in New York City.) The ambitious plan included a campus for the Academy of the New Church and more than 80 lots for individual residences, arranged along an elegantly non-linear road system.


Figure 3: Detail of a portion of Bryn Athyn from Atlas of the Properties on the Reading Railway Embracing Cheltenham, Abington, Springfield and Parts of Moreland and Whitemarsh Townships. Plan of the Huntingdon Valley Moreland Township. Author: A. H. Mueller (1909). Plate 17 includes the residential "Loop" and the Academy of the New Church properties.


Figure 4: This photograph, taken in 1899, shows residents from the newly formed New Church community in Huntingdon Valley picnicking in Alnwick Grove park (Camille and Marie Vinet, their son Pierre, and Lulu Xandry Odhner). Photo: Academy of the New Church Archives.


Figure 5: This photograph (circa 1902) shows both the old Alnwick Grove train station (right) and the new Bryn Athyn station (left). A small portion of Alnwick Grove park can be seen in this photo (upper left). Photo: Academy of the New Church Archives.


In the spring of 1898 a “Village Association” was formed to handle the wide variety of civil affairs facing the developing New Church community. In September a special meeting of the Association was held “for the purpose of considering a name for the settlement.” The Association believed that a name was the first step in securing an express office where packages could be received, a telegraph office, and eventually a post office. The process of choosing a name turned out to be a slow one. The discussion went on among members of the Association for more than a year, with many different suggestions proposed, including “Bonnie Brae,” “Collyn,” “Gwynmont,” “Hillcrest,” “Manoli,” “Ridgemont,” “Rothlyn,” and even “Swedenborg” (Figure 7). One name, “Hillbrook,” was formally chosen in May of 1899, but was abandoned after failing to receive sufficient community support.

“Bryn Athyn” was first suggested as a possibility by Bishop William F. Pendleton, who had found the two Welsh words in An English-Welsh Pronouncing Dictionary, published by William Spurrell in 1872 (Figure 6). Pencil marks are apparent in Pendleton’s dictionary beside the entries for “Bryn” (“hill, mount”) and “Athyn” (“very tenacious; cohesive”). Pendleton assumed that the two words placed together meant “hill of cohesion” (that is, hill of unity or togetherness).


Figure 6: An English-Welsh Pronouncing Dictionary, published by William Spurrell in 1872, was purchased for Bishop William F. Pendleton by Samuel Hicks, a member of the Village Association who had been born in Wales. This is Pendleton’s own copy of the dictionary he used to create the name “Bryn Athyn.” This dictionary is on loan to Glencairn Museum from the Swedenborg Library, Bryn Athyn.


William Spurrell, the publisher of Pendleton’s dictionary, believed “Athyn” to be a legitimate Welsh word. However, it is now considered to be a neologism (a newly-created word) invented by William Owen Pughe, the author of A Dictionary of the Welsh Language (1803). Pughe, in his enthusiasm to reconstruct the Welsh language, invented many new words for his dictionary, including “Athyn,” which does not appear in modern Welsh dictionaries. Spurrell incorporated “Athyn” and other examples of Pughe’s neologisms into his own 1872 dictionary, a copy of which was used by Pendleton to create the name “Bryn Athyn.”

On September 25, 1899, “Bryn Athyn” was chosen by the Village Association in a vote of 6 to 3, and the name of the group was changed to “The Bryn Athyn Village Association.” With permission from the railroad, a sign with the new name was hung on the station, and “Bryn Athyn” replaced “Alnwick Grove” on railroad timetables.


Figure 7: The minutes of the Village Association record in detail the discussions about naming the New Church settlement, which lasted for more than a year. The name “Bryn Athyn” was chosen by the Association on September 25, 1899. On loan to Glencairn Museum from the Swedenborg Library, Bryn Athyn.


The years between 1900 and 1910 were an exciting time for the residents of Bryn Athyn, who witnessed the construction of no fewer than seven buildings on the campus of the Academy of the New Church. In 1901 construction began on Benade Hall, an impressive classroom building for the Academy. Between 1901 and 1904 a girls’ dormitory (Glenn Hall), a boys’ dormitory (Stuart Hall), a dining hall and a heating plant were built on the campus. At the 1909 Founders’ Day banquet, held at Cairnwood, John Pitcairn announced that “the Academy was now prepared to proceed with the building of a new house for the Library and the Museum” (New Church Life, 1909, 126). Elementary school students in Bryn Athyn attended school in a variety of locations until De Charms Hall was completed in 1910. Children whose families lived in Bryn Athyn were able to walk to De Charms Hall and return home to eat their lunches (Figure 8).


Figure 8: This postcard of the Academy of the New Church campus, postmarked October 9, 1919, shows (from left to right) the library and museum, Benade Hall (the classroom building), and De Charms Hall (the elementary school).


The Philadelphia congregation’s decision to establish a New Church community in Huntingdon Valley was motivated in part by a desire to provide their children with the benefits of life in the countryside. In 1987 France Vinet White (b. 1903), the daughter of Camille Vinet, an Academy teacher, recorded her memories of growing up in Bryn Athyn. In “Early Childhood Memories in Bryn Athyn and Life on the Farm,” France provides a colorful account of living in a newly built house on South Avenue (part of the “Loop”), and her family’s subsequent move to a working farm nearby—all from a child’s point of view:

“Houses were springing up, big ones, three stories high. Big families were expected and they came. These houses had other occupants as well as the immediate family—grandmothers, aunts and other acquaintances who had nowhere else to go. For the elderly nursing homes didn't exist . . . The huckster brought fruit and vegetables and then came the baker with bread (5 cents a loaf) and cakes. Milk was delivered at the door early mornings. The ice man came weekly, carrying a huge piece of ice (with prongs) and deposited it in the upper section of the ice box at the back door. Young Mr. Clayton from the food store in Huntingdon Valley nearby would arrive on his bicycle and with pencil and pad take the grocery orders. This would be delivered later in the day. This all took care of supplying food for the home.”


Figure 9: Children in the Cairnwood sleigh, 1914. From a collection of hand-colored lantern slides in the Academy of the New Church Archives showing scenes of early Bryn Athyn.


“How did the Bryn Athyn children entertain themselves? They climbed trees for one thing and improvised many little games of their own . . . Baseball was popular which we played in the Acton Field, across the way . . . We wandered long distances over farm land (which was everywhere then) and well out of Bryn Athyn boundaries. In those days it was safe to stray that far and our parents didn’t seem to be concerned. There was swimming on hot summer days at the Pennypack . . . On really cold days when the ice was frozen thick, the Pennypack made a magnificent rink, a long sheet of ice as far as the Paper Mill Covered Bridge.”


Figure 10: Children at play on South Avenue, 1915. From a collection of hand-colored lantern slides in the Academy of the New Church Archives showing scenes of early Bryn Athyn.


On April 19, 1915, an application was filed in the Montgomery County Court of Quarter Sessions in favor of the incorporation of Bryn Athyn as a borough within the township of Moreland. The territory proposed for incorporation embraced 467 acres, with a population of 400 people living in 62 dwellings. In his decision for the court, delivered on January 20, 1916, Presiding Judge Aaron S. Swartz remarks that the settlement has a public library with 25,000 volumes and “extensive college and school buildings,” which are “of high standard and efficiency.” In addition, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, when completed, “will be one of the finest church buildings in this county.” The Decree of Incorporation, also written by Judge Swartz, was granted on February 8, 1916 (Figure 11). On March 28, 1916, the first meeting took place of the Council of Bryn Athyn Borough, led by Dr. Felix A. Boericke, the first burgess of Bryn Athyn (Figure 12).


Figure 11: The Decree of Incorporation, written by Judge Aaron S. Swartz, was granted on February 8, 1916. Image courtesy of the Montgomery County Archives, Montgomery County, PA.


Figure 12: This minute book from meetings of the Council of Bryn Athyn Borough is on loan to Glencairn Museum from Borough Hall. The minutes in this volume cover a twenty-year period, from the very first meeting on March 28, 1916, to May 4, 1936. At the first meeting, Burgess Felix A. Boericke administered the oath of office to the seven elected members of the Council.


Figure 13: In 1916, the year of the incorporation of Bryn Athyn Borough, residents enjoyed an especially festive Fourth of July. “This year the parade broke all records, and included numerous children, flags and baby coaches, a cannon, a battleship, the local fire engine, a big drum, a little drum, and a bugle. All branches of the service were represented by the costumed children; army, navy, cavalry, artillery, and the medical corps” (The Bulletin of the Sons of the Academy, September 1916, 50). Photo: Glencairn Museum Archives.


Figure 14: Bryn Athyn Cathedral is medieval in appearance, a combination of both the Gothic and Romanesque styles. In order to build in what he called the “Gothic way,” Raymond Pitcairn, who supervised the design and construction of the Cathedral, employed building techniques that were unique for the 20th century. As construction commenced, workshops began springing up around the building site: an architectural studio, stone shop, woodworking shop, modeling shop, metal shop, stained glass studio, and glass factory. This photograph was taken from Central Avenue (now Alnwick Road) in September, 1916, the year of the incorporation of Bryn Athyn Borough. Photo: Glencairn Museum Archives.


A Hill of Unity: The Founding of Bryn Athyn Borough is on exhibition at Glencairn Museum through Sunday, October 16, 2016. More information here.

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.