Glencairn Museum News | Number 10, 2015
The construction of Bryn Athyn Cathedral began in 1913. With many masons and sculptors hard at work, its rising walls soon began to dominate the local skyline. At this time Raymond Pitcairn, who was supervising the building’s design and construction, turned his attention to the stained glass windows he hoped would illuminate the Cathedral’s interior. Pitcairn, who had loved medieval architecture since childhood, was determined to match the textures and brilliant colors of the stained glass windows in the walls of the great European cathedrals built during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Stained glass windows had been an essential feature of medieval cathedrals since the beginning of the twelfth century. It was during this century that Abbot Suger (d. 1151), of the Abbey Church of St. Denis in France, had expounded his theory of “divine light.” Suger viewed the natural light streaming through the walls of colored glass as symbolic of heavenly light and a means to union with God. The impact of this light, he believed, was dependent on the quality of the stained glass windows.
Unfortunately for Raymond Pitcairn, the arcane chemical formulas and hand-blown techniques used by medieval glassmakers were unknown in the glass factories of industrialized America. Dissatisfied with the quality of commercial stained glass, in 1915 Pitcairn hired local artisans to experiment with re-melting commercial glass over a bed of sand and pebbles. By doing so, he hoped to recreate the irregular textures that give medieval glass so much of its beauty. These experiments were a failure, but these humble early attempts to imitate the special qualities of medieval glass marked the beginning of a quest that lasted for the next 30 years.
Early in the work of preparing for Bryn Athyn Cathedral’s stained glass windows, Raymond Pitcairn enlisted the help of Winfred Sumner Hyatt (1891-1959), a young art student. Hyatt had been born in Toronto, Canada, to a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister and his wife. He came to Bryn Athyn as a student, and went on to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, winning two Cresson Traveling Scholarships. These scholarships enabled him to study art in Europe.
Even as he pursued his studies, Hyatt was chosen to be a member of Bryn Athyn Cathedral’s symbolism committee. The committee, which included both clergy and laymen, was charged with selecting the subject matter for the Cathedral’s stained glass windows and sculptures. Their goal was to convey New Church ideas using a distinctive symbolic program. Hyatt, who maintained a strong interest in the teachings of the New Church, was well suited to the work of this committee.
Hyatt began taking trips to New York and other American cities with Raymond Pitcairn, in order to evaluate the stained glass windows in a variety of churches. In the summer of 1914, the symbolism committee commissioned Hyatt to travel abroad and study medieval stained glass windows in England and France. He sent back photographs and sketches of windows, and studied their color palettes. During later trips to Europe, he also purchased medieval stained glass panels and relevant books on Pitcairn’s behalf.
By 1916 Raymond Pitcairn had placed Winfred Hyatt in charge of the stained glass studio in Bryn Athyn. He became the preeminent stained glass artist for Bryn Athyn Cathedral, and later Glencairn, designing and painting the majority of the windows in these buildings. Hyatt continued in this capacity until his death in 1959.
Lawrence Saint was running his own stained glass studio in nearby Huntingdon Valley when Raymond Pitcairn hired him to design and paint windows for the Cathedral, and also to conduct research and experimental work. Saint worked in Bryn Athyn from 1917 until 1928, when he left to work on the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where he became the director of the stained glass department. During his years in Bryn Athyn, Saint completed six windows for the Cathedral, and contributed a great deal to the work of perfecting formulas for the stained glass paint, which he referred to as “one of the most wonderful substances ever known.”
In 1916 Pitcairn met John A. Larson, who had set up his own glass factory in Brooklyn, New York. Larson, a Swedish immigrant, was descended from a family of master glassblowers. Pitcairn hired Larson to conduct experiments in replicating medieval glassmaking techniques. Larson visited medieval stained glass collections in New York City to study the colors achieved by the medieval glassmakers, and began producing his own small batches of stained glass in various colors. Pitcairn’s small but growing collection of medieval glass, stored in Cairnwood, his Bryn Athyn home, was also used for comparison. Larson kept careful records of these experiments and developed a significant body of color formulas.
In 1921 Pitcairn made national headlines when he purchased 23 panels of medieval stained glass from the renowned collection of Henry C. Lawrence at an auction in New York City. These panels were acquired as a source of information and inspiration for the growing number of artists and craftsmen Pitcairn was employing in his quest to rediscover the techniques of medieval glassmakers. As progress continued on the Cathedral, Pitcairn expanded his medieval glass purchases even further; in time his collection grew to include more than 260 panels.
In 1922 Raymond Pitcairn established a factory in Bryn Athyn for producing stained glass windows for Bryn Athyn Cathedral. In the 1930s his glassworks also produced stained glass for Glencairn, the castle-like home he built adjacent to Cairnwood. The factory was located on what is now called Tomlinson Road (see aerial photo, Figure 7). The glassworks operated continuously from July, 1922, until April, 1942, when it closed because of World War II. The building was torn down in 1952, but many of the tools and materials were preserved in an empty barn; they are now part of the collection of Glencairn Museum. All of the stained glass made for Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn were produced in the Bryn Athyn glass factory.
Photographs and a blueprint plan of the factory still exist (Figures 8 and 9). It was a wooden building, 60 feet long by 32 feet wide. A small, attached metal shed provided a space for the setting of glass mosaics. The design and final assembly of stained glass windows took place just down the road from the factory in Cairnwood’s garden house (Figure 6), under the direction of Winfred S. Hyatt.
In the first years of its operation, the glass factory was managed by John Larson. Assisting Larson at the factory were David Smith, a Swedish glassblower he had brought with him from New York, and Ariel Gunther, a young member of the Bryn Athyn New Church congregation whom Pitcairn had hired as an apprentice. Pitcairn had approached Gunther in 1922, just after he graduated from the Academy of the New Church Boys School in Bryn Athyn. During his interview, Pitcairn told Gunther that he should not accept the position unless he intended to make it his life’s work. He decided to accept the unusual offer, and proved an apt pupil. Gunther was closely involved in the experiments that took place during Larson’s tenure in Bryn Athyn. After Larson left the factory in 1925, Gunther took over its management until it closed in 1942. His memoir, Opportunity, Challenge, and Privilege, provides a detailed picture of the daily operation of the glassworks during the early years:
“Once we actually got into the daily making of glass my routine became established. For the next twenty years I was to arrive at the factory each morning at 5:45 A.M. and start the fires in the furnace. By doing this I would have the furnace hot enough to receive the batch by the time that [John] Larson and [David] Smith arrived at eight o’clock. Larson made up the batch and I filled it in. This would allow us to begin the blowing of the glass about one o’clock in the afternoon. When the glass had all been blown and put into the lehr, the fires were turned off and the furnaces were allowed to cool overnight” (pp. 57-58). (Note: a lehr is a special furnace that allows the glass to cool slowly, making it stronger and less brittle.)
Read more about glassmaking in Bryn Athyn in these previous issues of Glencairn Museum News:
A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.