My favorite green spaces in Philly: The Glencairn Museum secret garden

bryn_athyn_post_coverAll right, so technically, this is not in Philly… Glencairn museum is located in Bryn Athyn, a borough in Montgomery county, PA, just outside of Philadelphia. This community was formed in 1916 centered around the Bryn Athyn Cathedral.

You can see the cathedral from the Pitcairn estate grounds.

Bryn Athyn community originally belonged to the Swedenborgian Church, also known as the New Church. The Pitcairn family was the main driving force in the separation of Bryn Athyn from Moreland Township, so it is no surprise that the family’s estate is also prominent in the architectural ensemble that is Bryn Athyn Borough.

The Gleincairn mansion, built in 1939, looks more like a medieval castle than a family home from the 20th century. The building presently serves as a museum for the Academy of the New Church and Bryn Athyn College. If you would like to learn more about Glencairn, I recommend this movie, featuring beautiful areal footage of the estate.


As you walk up the hill towards Glencairn, you can take in the beautiful gardens surrounding it.


Purpletop Vervain, also known as Argentinian Vervain (Verbena bonariensis)

Even the border wall has become a sort of vertical flower bed, fostering wild strawberry,…



Common Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

… and Ivy-leaved Toadflax.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax, also known as Oxford ivy, Coliseum ivy, or Kenilworth ivy (Cymbalaria muralis)

But the real treasure and my favorite part of Bryn Athyn is hidden behind the stone walls of the mansion. As you walk up towards the main entrance, take a turn to your left instead, and you will find this window:


What you see inside is a marvelous medieval-style cloister garden! It is square in shape, surrounded by stone pillars supporting the roof covering the galleries. There is a water feature in the middle, and four flower beds are located in the corners.


In Glencairn, all statues and column capitals are symbolic.


Each of the twelve columns is topped with a capital depicting a bird species: peacock, dove, bird of paradise, stork, golden eagle, hen, swan, quail, flamingo, rooster, ibis and pelican. In the New Church tradition, birds represent “those ideals of the mind that lift us above worldly concerns as the flight of a bird draws our eyes from the earth” (a citation from  E. Bruce Glenn, author of Glencairn: The Story of a Home). So one can stroll the cloister arcades in meditation and use these symbolic columns as reminders of different spiritual ideals. All of the symbols used in the cloister garden represent the various aspects of family. If you’d like to learn more about the history and architecture of this cloister garden, I highly recommend this article.


While writing this post, I realized that all my visits here have been in summer. So the flower bed design may actually vary throughout the seasons. Now I can’t wait for Fall to visit the garden again!


Each of the flower beds comprises the identical selection of plants, but the exact composition is subtly different between the arrangements.


There are a lot of plants with gorgeous foliage, such as the Plume Asparagus Fern,…


… Maidenhair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes),…


… this beauty that I can’t identify,…


… Scented Hosta, also known as Corfu Lily (Hosta plantaginea),…


… and Aruncus Sylvester (Aruncus sylvester).



Angel wings (Caladium bicolor), with white geranium in the background.


Can’t really identify this one, either…


All blooming flowers have white blossoms, like this White garden phlox (Phlox paniculata).


Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima)


Mother-of-thousands (Saxifraga stolonifera)


These two stone chairs were made for Raymond Pitcairn and his wife Mildred to look out the window. As with the column capitals, the chairs’ armrests carry the shape of symbolic animals, a ram and an ewe, both connected to family in the New Church’s tradition.


What you can see through the window today is the mansion’s driveway and a flower bed in its center, but when the building was designed, you could sit in those chairs and look out on the valley below.


The four arcades surrounding the garden offer slightly different viewpoints.



As time comes to leave the quiet meditative garden, you return to the “regular” world with its bold-colored flowers.


I’m a bit disappointed that I could not find any information regarding the selection of plants for these flower beds, as I feel that those, too, may be symbolic. At the very least, the choice of white-blooming flowers seems to be a clear reference to purity of the soul…

In any case, even without going into discussions about symbolism, this cloister garden is one of my favorite places on Earth. One of my friends says: “I believe this is where faeries reside”, and I completely agree!

If you are ever in the area, I hope you make some time to visit thus wonderful green space!



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