WHY GO: There are things to do in Bryn Athyn PA that you can’t do anywhere else, including a tour of one of the only privately built cathedrals in the United States.
A Pennsylvania Rags to Riches Captain of Industry, John Pitcairn, founded a whole new religious branch of Christianity about 15 miles north of Philadelphia in Montgomery County. And, he built a world-class cathedral on his property.
John’s son, Raymond, and daughter-in-law, Mildred, lived next door and had nine children. On a tour of their home, Glencairn, you’ll learn about their life-long romance. It was a love for the ages.
Raymond continued his father’s work and in the process amassed the largest collection of Medieval stained glass in private hands in the country.
Stumbling on John’s country estate, Raymond’s mansion, and the stunning cathedral, collectively a National Historic Landmark known as Bryn Athyn Historic District, is like finding Angkor Wat Temple in the jungle. Who knew it was there? So close to Philly? And wow, it’s incredible!
Also nearby, you’ll find the only museum devoted entirely to the Three Stooges, the Stoogeum (open only by online appointment): “Soitenly” a find of a different kind.
This small hamlet, is 30 minutes from both Bryn Mawr College and Valley Forge PA.
Things To Do In Bryn Athyn Pennsylvania
VISIT: The Homes and Cathedral in Bryn Athyn Historic District
*****Be Aware Glencairn Museum is closed for renovation, with reopening date late 2023, early 2024.
John Pitcairn was a poor Scottish immigrant when he settled in Pittsburg in the mid-1800’s. But in Horatio-Alger style, he invested early in what was to become the Western Pennsylvania Oil Boom. He then took his winnings and co-founded another money-maker, Pittsburg Plate Glass – a new technology at the time.
While most tycoons back then bought up art and endowed museums, Pitcairn’s interest lay in religion. He was a proponent of what came to be called The New Church.
Pitcairn identified 550 available acres on the outskirts of Philadelphia; enough land for his large-scale country house and a grand Cathedral. He then hired architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, trained at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Cairnwood Estate in Bryn Athyn Historic District
Take a historical tour of Cairnwood Estate, a salmon-hued French-Country retreat, the first home built on Pitcairn’s 500 acres. Combine this tour with one of the Bryn Athyn Church (Cathedral). See below.
Bryn Athyn Cathedral
A tour of the still-active Gothic Romanesque Bryn Athyn Cathedral is one of the best things to do in Bryn Athyn, and typically takes about 45 minutes. Built from 1913-1919 in a style befitting Medieval France, it is remarkably contemporary inside.
Filled with elements that correspond to stories in the bible, no two things are alike, “just as no two things in creation are alike.” Because John Pitcairn had been in the glass business, he was particularly interested in creating stained glass here, just as it was made for Chartres and Canterbury in Europe.
Pitcairn hired artisans who meticulously recreated these windows, and the result is spectacular. Panels include biblical scenes with phrases in Greek and Hebrew. A few in a side chapel behind a filigreed wrought iron gate depict scenes from the afterlife.
Your tour of this breathtaking place would not be complete without a discussion about the Religion itself. The General Church of New Jerusalem, now called the New Church, seems to be a kinder, gentler form of Christianity that espouses that good people of all faiths are destined for heaven.
See the piece of paper that begin it all – the raison d’être that this compound exists. It’s the $500 check that Pitcairn wrote on Jan. 14, 1874 to establish The General Church of New Jerusalem. The affiliated Bryn Athyn College still celebrates “Founders Day” every Jan. 14th.
When available again, take a guided tour (starting again in 2024) of Raymond Pitcairn’s estate. John’s son built his home, the Romanesque Glencairn, adjacent to his parent’s place and raised his own nine children there.
Lambs and sheep are a repeating motif in Glencairn. Raymond and his wife, Mildred, believed that these animals represented family and obedience to G-d. Before walking through the unique front door, you’ll find the names of eight of their nine children (one died in childhood) overhead.
In the Master Bedroom, I found it touching that this couple, who produced nine children, chose entwined lovebirds as finials on their four –poster bed. Even in privacy, love reigned.
The Glencairn Museum features the largest collection of Medieval stained glass in private hands in the USA. You’ll see a sampling in the breathtaking Great Hall – a soaring Cloisters-like space where bas reliefs and mosaics are also incorporated throughout.
Glencairn also serves as a Museum of Religion. Galleries showcase Greek and Roman glass, jewelry, pottery and sculpture and religious artifacts from around the world.
An elevator takes you 150 feet up to the enclosed Turret Tower. The stunning 360-degree view includes downtown Philadelphia – only 20 miles away.
Check website for tours. Guided history tours of Cairnwood Estate Tues-Sun 11am, Garden Tours Tues-Sun 2pm, Cathedral tours Tuesday — Friday at 1:15 and 2:30 pm, unless the building is being used for a private event or service. For custom tours, email Lisa Parker-Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
VISIT: The Stoogeum, Ambler
It’s been said that more people are able to identify the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. You can take that as either a statement on the woeful condition of our educational system or the staying power of three guys who made the double-eye poke a thing.
If you can’t get enough Moe Larry and Curly (or Shemp, depending on the year), the compact but excellent homage to the trio, the Stoogeum, is a must see. But to see it, for now, you’ve got to book a coveted spot online by appointment only.
And, when you do make the pilgrimage, chances are you won’t find it easily. There are no signs from the road, and just one small one on a former architecture-firm office building within a commercial complex.
Founded by the grand-nephew-in-law of Philadelphia’s own Larry Fine, there are enough posters, personal artifacts (Shemp’s 1945 IRS tax return; he earned $14,016.66), art, historical exhibits and continuously running clips to fill three floors within 10,000 square feet of space, plus, an 80-seat movie theater.
Michelle Squiccimara, MA Museum Collections and Erin Thomson, MA Specialty Archivist have “serious jobs in a very silly place.” Their presence points to the fact that this museum is bona fide, professional, and highly entertaining. For now, tours are by appointment only. Sign up on Stoogeum Website.
STROLL: Abington Art Center Sculpture Park
Take about an hour to meander the 27 acres of kinetic, organic, interactive outdoor sculptures at the Abington Art Center Sculpture Park. Every year installations change in this woodland landscape, offering a serene, contemplative place to commune with nature (suggestion; leave your phone in the car).
I can’t comment on the sculptures themselves, as they will most likely be different when you read this, but suffice it to say that curators will choose entertaining, interesting and creative pieces to please visitors of all ages. Wear comfy shoes – some paths are uneven. Open 24/7, free.
Restaurants and Hotels Near Bryn Athyn PA
STAY/EAT: William Penn Inn, Gwynedd
William Penn would have been so lucky to have eaten here, though he did apparently make frequent trips to the area in the early 1700’s. Opened in 1714, the menu now harks back to those days, with Early American cuisine.
Dine on Prime Rib, roast chicken and other foods easy to recognize by candlelight in an ornate, Colonial mansion with hardwood floors, white linen and crystal stemware.
Three opulent rooms are available for overnights.