A Gentleman who persists in his courtship of the woman he loves for seven years, a happy marriage filled with children, sudden death and a love that endures into the afterlife are all elements of John Pitcairn and Gertrude Starkey’s remarkable love story.
As cofounder of Pittsburgh Plate Glass, and through longstanding connections with the Pennsylvania Railroad, investments in oil, coal, and natural gas, John Pitcairn was one of the leading industrialists of his time with business and social contacts that included Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Clay Frick, and Henry Flagler. Often traveling abroad and throughout the United States, Pitcairn was 38 when he met 21-year-old Gertrude Starkey in Philadelphia in 1877. Two years later he asked her to marry him. She gently turned him down. Her hesitation lay in her strong New Church beliefs, particularly its ideal of marriage, which required her to examine the depth and spiritual nature of her feelings for him. Undeterred by her rejection, John Pitcairn persisted in his courtship of the young Gertrude for five more years before he prevailed and she said yes, in the fall of 1883.
After their marriage January 11, 1884, they eventually settled on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia. John Pitcairn’s considerable fortune allowed him to purchase the farmland that is now Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. He built Cairnwood as a home for Gertrude and their children, Raymond, Vera, Theodore and Harold. It also became the center for New Church social life and the community.
Gertrude Pitcairn died a few short years after moving into Cairnwood. Heartbroken, John never remarried.When asked why, he responded, “I would no sooner remarry than if Gertrude were standing in the other room.” Among the teachings of the New Church is the belief that marriage between a man and a woman is a holy covenant with the Lord that can last for eternity.
John Pitcairn remained in Cairnwood until his death in 1916. His eldest son Raymond moved into the estate with his wife Mildred Glenn Pitcairn, remaining with their nine children until their new home, Glencairn (now the Glencairn Museum) was completed in 1939. Following in the footsteps of her grandparents and parents, Gabriele Pitcairn, her husband Willard Pendleton, and their growing family reopened Cairnwood’s doors for gatherings of all kinds beginning in the late 1940’s. Upon Mildred’s death in 1979, the Pitcairn family donated Cairnwood Estate, and Glencairn next door, to the Academy of the New Church– the educational arm of the General Church of the New Jerusalem. Although modifications were made through the generations, today the home has been predominantly restored to its original 1895 appearance. Fundraising for preservation and restoration projects is ongoing.