The Ceiling of Glencairn's Great Hall: Construction and Decoration

Glencairn Museum News | Number 4, 2019

Figure 1: The ceiling of Glencairn’s Great Hall with scaffolding in the 1930s.

Before beginning work on Glencairn, the home he built for his family adjacent to Cairnwood, Raymond Pitcairn had overseen the construction and design of Bryn Athyn Cathedral. The Cathedral’s nave features an open-timbered ceiling in white oak, the trees having come from the surrounding woodlands. Raymond originally intended to do something similar for the ceiling of Glencairn's Great Hall, but he changed his mind—mainly because his brother, aviation pioneer Harold Pitcairn, was routinely flying his autogiros in the area. According to Raymond, “When I built this my brother had Autogiros that were buzzing around here. . . I had visions some day of an airplane landing on this and burning it down” (transcript of recorded tour with Metropolitan Museum of Art director James Rorimer, November 11, 1965). For this reason, the original plan for a timbered ceiling in the Great Hall was abandoned, and a new plan made for a ceiling of reinforced concrete.

The two large concrete trusses on the ceiling of the Great Hall encase a steel structure beneath, which is part of the reinforced concrete roof. Due to the height of the ceiling, and the large surface area involved, it proved to be a challenge to pour such a large amount of concrete and still ensure that the ceiling would remain structurally sound. They decided to pour the concrete “without stopping in order to have a strong seamless fabric. . . For the pouring itself, tents were set up with cots and food tables, and the men agreed to stay on the job till it was finished, through day and floodlit night. It took thirty-six hours” (E. Bruce Glenn, Glencairn: The Story of a Home, 1990, 64).

Figure 2: The trusses, beams, and recessed spaces on the ceiling of the Great Hall were all decorated.

Figure 3: The ceiling decoration was inspired by the Book of Kells.

Pitcairn had always loved medieval stained glass, but he also admired the famous mosaics of the fifth and sixth century churches of Ravenna, Italy. He set out to decorate his home with mosaics of similar quality. The Bryn Athyn glassworks produced mosaic tesserae in a wide variety of colors. To create the exact thickness needed for the tesserae, molten glass was ladled onto a metal table or “marver” and rolled between two metal bars of the height needed. Ariel Gunther, who was in charge of operations at the glassworks, described the process in a recorded lecture about Bryn Athyn glassmaking:

“We cast this onto a piece of very smooth cast iron, and then I made this rolling pin out of a piece of three-inch pipe, and I rolled it out into an uneven pancake, about 3/8 of an inch thick. This was then annealed, and then it had to be cut up into these small tesserae for the mosaic work.”

Figure 4: Ariel Gunther rolls a “pancake” of mosaic glass onto the marver between two metal bars. The height of the bars controlled the thickness of the glass tesserae.

The intricate mosaic designs for the ceiling were inspired by the Book of Kells, a medieval Celtic manuscript produced around 800 AD containing the four New Testament Gospels. (For more information about the Book of Kells, see here.) Artist Robert G. Glenn, Raymond Pitcairn’s nephew, produced the designs when he was in his twenties. Pitcairn, however, had introduced Glenn to the Book of Kells many years earlier, when he was in the eighth grade. According to Glenn, 

“They made a scale model of the bed in the master bedroom [of Glencairn], and Uncle Raymond wanted to give it to one of his children [Vera] for a doll bed. He brought it to me when I was around thirteen years old, and he asked me to paint it. So I did, and I met with him over in the woodcarver’s room in the carpenter’s shop. . .Well, he didn’t like some of the colors I had used, so he handed me this Book of Kells and said, ‘Here, take this, and use that as your guide.’ So, that began my fascination. Uncle Raymond liked bright colors.” (Robert Glenn, interview with David Deaton, June 24, 1993)

Using the Book of Kells as his color palette, Glenn then painted the little wooden bed. “That’s where I first saw the Book of Kells. I fell in love with it immediately. I just felt like it was part of me” (Robert Glenn, interview with Ed Gyllenhaal, November 5, 2003). In the early 1930s, when Glencairn was under construction, Glenn would be given another opportunity to use the Book of Kells as his artistic inspiration—this time, in the decoration of the Great Hall ceiling:

 

Figure 5: Robert Gurth Glenn produced the designs for the Great Hall ceiling.

 

“Years later there was a scale model of Glencairn and the Great Hall up in the carpenter’s shop. I was then working for the modeler Felix Sabatino, downstairs, and he said, ‘Why don’t you go up there and color some of these models?’ Uncle Raymond came along and looked at it and said, ‘Hey, I like that. I want you to move up to the studio and do the whole ceiling.’ I was 20 or 21 years old. I was scared to death! I thought, ‘Oh boy, what a terrible responsibility.’ But it looked like lots of fun.” (Robert Glenn, interview with Ed Gyllenhaal, November 5, 2003)

Figure 6: Samuel Croft II assembling mosaic stars for the ceiling of the Great Hall.

Once Glenn completed a design, it was transferred onto a sheet of heavy paper and individual glass tesserae were glued to it. The sheets of mosaic were then turned upside down and pressed into wet cement. When the cement was dry, the paper and glue were washed away, and all of the tesserae were grouted. The installation of these mosaics on the ceiling, however, presented a special challenge. According to Gunther,

“I had another problem, in the Great Hall. The ceiling and the roof is six-inch reinforced concrete, and that is covered with what’s called a nailcrete—an inch and a half, and then 3/4 inch clay tile. To support all that weight, there were huge steel trusses that went across the whole arch of the building, to support this. Well, Mr. Pitcairn didn’t want to see those steel trusses, so he wanted those covered with mosaic. But to facilitate the work, what they decided to do was to drill holes in the flanges of these steel trusses, and then to pre-cast the mosaic in a monolith, and bolt it up to the truss itself.” (Transcript of Ariel Gunther’s lecture on Bryn Athyn glassmaking)

Figure 7: The recessed spaces between the ceiling beams are covered with acoustic tiles in various shades of blue, with yellow mosaic stars.

Figure 8: Three different star designs were chosen to decorate the ceiling.

Figure 9: Glass tesserae were glued to a sheet of heavy paper, then then turned upside down and pressed into wet cement.

The large recessed spaces between the beams are decorated with yellow mosaic star tiles, set in a field of blue ceramic acoustic tiles. Three different star designs were assembled from blue and yellow glass tesserae. Towering above the many examples of Christian stained glass and sculpture on the walls and floor beneath, the ceiling of the Great Hall evokes both the night sky and the divine organization of the cosmos. Star ceilings were common in ancient Egyptian tombs and temples, and are known in several other cultures and time periods. The precise reason for Raymond Pitcairn’s decision to decorate the ceiling of his home with stars is not known. However, he would have been aware of similar star ceilings in Europe, including those in Early Christian churches in Ravenna, Italy, and in Sainte-Chapelle, a thirteenth-century royal chapel in Paris, France. Pitcairn was pleased with the result: “The effect of this rich blue ground with the gold stars set off, or framed, by mosaic covered beams done in rich color is really thrilling” (Raymond Pitcairn, quoted in E. Bruce Glenn, Glencairn: The Story of a Home, 1990, 68).

According to a series of letters between Raymond Pitcairn and the R. Guastavino Company, the manufacturer of the ceramic acoustic tiles, the ceiling was estimated to require approximately 11,000 tiles, with 9 percent of those being mosaic star tiles made in the Bryn Athyn glassworks. Pitcairn initially settled on nine different shades of blue acoustic tiles, with various amounts of each shade, and placed an order for 3,000 tiles to see how they would look in place (Raymond Pitcairn letter to R. Guastavino Company. 3 December 1936). After seeing them on the ceiling he decided to remove two of the shades, leaving a total of seven. That number was reduced to six when shade number 3 failed to live up to Pitcairn’s standards (Raymond Pitcairn letter to R. Guastavino Company. 17 May 1937).

The choice of acoustic tiles for the Great Hall was not done merely to cut down on reverberations and echo. Pitcairn, an amateur musician, music appreciation teacher, and concert patron, wanted the room to have the right acoustic properties for music—for both live concerts and music played on the Great Hall’s radio-phonograph system. In November, 1965, James J. Rorimer, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, came with a group of curators for an all-day visit to Glencairn. During their tour of the Great Hall, Pitcairn pointed out the acoustic ceiling tiles, and remarked, “If they weren’t there our music would all jumble up. I heard a Bach Mass in Cologne Cathedral one time. It was interesting, but it was all jumbled up” (transcript of recorded tour with Metropolitan Museum of Art director James Rorimer, November 11, 1965).

Figure 10: The west truss.

Figure 11: The east truss.

In addition to the elaborate mosaics inspired by the Book of Kells, two quotations from the works of the Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) were incorporated into the design. The quotations, reproduced in English translation, were chosen by Raymond Pitcairn himself. Much of the original artwork created for Glencairn in stone, wood, glass, and mosaic was inspired by the Pitcairn family’s New Church (Swedenborgian Christian) beliefs. The major decorative themes illustrate the biblical commandment that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31, sometimes called the Second Great Commandment).

Figure 12a-b: Inscriptions on the ceiling trusses from the works of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), a Swedish Christian theologian.

The quotations from Swedenborg are from a single passage in his book, Secrets of Heaven (§1088). 

West truss:

“Those who are in charity think only good of their neighbor and speak only well of him.”

East truss:

“Those who are in no charity think nothing but evil of the neighbor and say nothing but evil.”

Glencairn’s Great Hall was designed as both a private and public space. Perhaps Raymond Pitcairn hoped that his family and guests, living and socializing in the monumental space below, might occasionally glance upward at these noble sentiments and be reminded to speak kindly of each other. 

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