History in the Making
In the Bryn Athyn Historic District, decorative building arts’ past and future intersect
by Patrice Heinz Schelkun

There’s a celebration of the decorative building arts happening in Montgomery County’s Bryn Athyn Historic District this summer. Nearly 15 years into the 21st century, some ancient crafts are seeing a rebirth with the help of unique new educational programs. At Bryn Athyn College, artisan/teachers of stained glass, metal forging and stone carving—to name a few media—are working to educate a new generation of craftspeople, historic preservationists and urban planners.   

For decades, ornamental embellishments in architecture have given way to a sleeker, contemporary aesthetic. Because of this trend, nurturing a corps of highly skilled artisans to pass on their knowledge in preserving and maintaining the region’s historic architecture has become nothing short of essential.

Take the historic landmark Bryn Athyn Cathedral, for example. Construction of this Gothic and Romanesque-style church complex began more than 100 years ago under the direction of landowner John Pitcairn, president of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. (now PPG Industries). It took six years to complete the nave of this architectural masterpiece and nearly 60 more years to complete construction and the installation of its medieval-style stained glass windows.  

John’s son, Raymond, who took the role of master builder upon his father’s death, established an in-house studio for architectural design, along with shops for stone and metal work, woodcarving, blown glass, mosaics and the building of plaster models. Today, all but one of those shops is long gone, though their remnants serve as a tribute to these valued craftsmen and as historical reference for future generations.

The adjacent Glencairn Museum, once Raymond Pitcairn’s family residence, is now a museum of art and religious history. It, too, is filled with stained glass and incredible ornamental stone carvings and mosaics. The museum’s extensive art collection represents religions as varied as ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman, as well as medieval Christian, Islamic, Asian and American Indian. Its reference library and holdings offer a wealth of study material for students of the fine arts and building arts.  

Along with John Pitcairn’s original home, Cairnwood Estate, these unique buildings offer a treasure trove of historic beauty in the midst of modern suburbia. “The kind of craftsmanship and architecture found here in Bryn Athyn can hardly be found anywhere else other than Europe,” says Joralyn Echols, outreach coordinator for the Glencairn Museum.

J. Kenneth Leap, a New Jersey-based glass artist and designer, started volunteering at Glencairn Museum years ago, and eventually became involved in what was then known as Bryn Athyn’s Sacred Arts Institute. He gave educational workshops and demonstrations to the public about stained glass alongside artisans from other disciplines. As the museum’s stained glass artist-in-residence, he was asked to restore a storm-damaged stained glass window in the cathedral using the cathedral’s own inventory of original blown glass, and to make an assessment of and recommendations for the long-term care of the cathedral windows.   

“I told them it would be wise to think about an in-house restoration program as a means of holding down costs,” says Leap. A similar approach had been taken in Great Britain, where the Heritage Skills Center at the 14th century Lincoln Cathedral—once the tallest building in the world—was established by the Prince of Wales to help in the preservation of Britain’s historic buildings. “Why not consider a program in the decorative building arts right here in Bryn Athyn?” Leap remembers asking. Allen Bedford, dean of academics at Bryn Athyn College, was enthusiastic, as was Martha Gyllenhaal, the college’s head of fine arts.  

“Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn, as structures, demonstrate an exquisite care for the materials—the stone, wood, glass and metal—used to build these structures,” says Bedford. “The buildings showcase an endless variety in creation, with no two elements the same. These structures render in physical form the values that build the curriculum at Bryn Athyn College, and so the idea for establishing a new program in the building arts, one that could eventually coordinate with other strong educational programs in the liberal arts and business, caught fire pretty quickly.”

Leap was asked to help Bryn Athyn College take the next step. He researched existing programs such as the ones at the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, S.C., and at Savannah Technical College in Savannah, Ga. He also visited the restoration works at Lincoln and York cathedrals in Great Britain; the York Glaziers Trust is the oldest and largest stained glass conservationist group in Britain that services its great monuments.

Leap also garnered the support of the American Glass Guild, a nonprofit group of stained glass artists, historians and conservators whose mission it is to promote the further education of artists and craftspeople working in stained glass. He currently serves as president of that organization.  

This will be the third year for Bryn Athyn College’s summer program, “The Workshops at Bryn Athyn,” through which adult students of any age and experience can take intensive four-day, hands-on classes in the decorative building arts. These include not only stained glass but also glassblowing, mosaics, blacksmithing and stone carving. The college is also working to build a more traditional academic curriculum in the building arts, one that will initially offer an associate’s degree, then eventually a bachelor’s degree, to support other historic preservation and conservation programs. They hope to expand their specific offerings to include other specialty trades such as preservation carpentry.

“Although this is a hands-on, crafts-oriented program, we’d also like to bring in people in related fields, such as business or architecture, who seek to further their knowledge of the decorative building arts to enhance their professional life,” says Leap. “They may not eventually be the craftsmen but they might find themselves involved in town planning or on committees dealing with historic preservation. We need better informed people to make the decisions about what gets done and how.” Leap dreams of eventually establishing a conservation lab at Bryn Athyn College.  

So, thanks to the efforts of expert craftspeople and educators in the Bryn Athyn Historic District and elsewhere, the future of the decorative building arts in the Philadelphia area looks bright.

Windows of the Soul
Upcoming events in Bryn Athyn explore the beauty and versatility of stained glass art

The American Glass Guild will hold its 10th annual conference, “Glasstopia,” at Bryn Athyn College at the end of June in conjunction with the Bryn Athyn Historic District’s “Landmarks in Lights” celebration. Some events will be open to the public, including a keynote presentation by the internationally acclaimed glass artist and designer Narcissus Quagliata at Glencairn Museum on Friday, June 27.

Considered to be one of the most significant glass artists working today, Quagliata is recognized for his spectacular public glass installations. This includes the world’s largest illuminated glass dome ceiling, the Taiwan Dome of Light at the Taiwan train station, as well as the glass cupola Divinity in Light at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome.  

A juried exhibition of contemporary stained glass artists’ work, “American Glass Now: 2014” will also be on display at Glencairn Museum, from April 27 to June 29. On the evening of Saturday, June 28, there will be a live auction at Bryn Athyn College, which will include works by contemporary stained glass artists as well as other glass-related items. The auction benefits the James Whitney Scholarship Fund of the American Glass Guild, which supports educational scholarships for artisans working in glass. The public is welcome to attend this event.

For further information, or to register for these events, go to bahistoricdistrict.org, glencairnmuseum.org and americanglassguild.org. Information on “The Workshops at Bryn Athyn” can be found at brynathyn.edu. —PHS

Photograph by Jason Buss