The grounds and gardens of Cairnwood Estate and the layout of the Bryn Athyn community are the result of two giants in American landscape architecture; Charles Eliot and Frederick Law Olmsted. Eliot apprenticed with Frederick Law Olmsted and Company in 1883. On the advice of Olmsted, the promising apprentice left the firm in 1885 to study gardens in Europe before setting up his own office in Boston in 1886. A letter written on March 15, 1892 from Cairnwood’s primary architect Thomas Hastings recommended Charles Eliot to Mrs. Gertrude Pitcairn and correspondence commenced. One year later Charles Eliot rejoined Olmsted as a partner, forming the firm Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot. There is no doubt Mrs. Pitcairn was pleased with the merger, writing in March, 1893, “Mr. Olmsted is a genial fatherly old gentleman and it was a treat to meet him…he has a world wide reputation.”
It was a likely alliance. Olmsted is widely recognized today as the founder of landscape architecture in America. He was passionate about city planning with the incorporation of natural landscape and rustic gardens in order to elevate the cultural, social and psychological well being of Americans. He developed some of the nation’s most notable parks and public grounds: New York Central Park, the U.S. capitol, and White House grounds.
Charles Eliot was a preservationist, working to establish the Trustees of Public Reservations in 1891—the first organization of its kind, charged with the mission “to acquire, hold, protect and administer for the benefit of the public, beautiful and historic places.” Scholar Mark Hewitt credits Eliot with being “the first American to seriously regard regional planning as an important branch of landscape design, and the Bryn Athyn project remains an important early experiment in this concept.”
Today, the proceeds from Cairnwood special events are used to restore and improve the grounds and gardens of Cairnwood Estate.