Cathedral of Learning

The Cathedral Of Learning

You can’t drive through Oakland in Pittsburgh without seeing the Cathedral of Learning on Pitt’s campus.   Heck, you can see it from just about any hilltop in Pittsburgh, and there’s a particularly cool view of it on the parkway east headed into or out of downtown.  Standing 535 feet tall, this Gothic Revival structure was the tallest building in Pittsburgh until the Gulf Building downtown was completed just prior.  The Cathedral of Learning was finished in 1934.

Who Designed The Cathedral of Learning?

John Gabbert Bowman, then the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, conceived the Cathedral in 1921.  His vision was for the University to have a symbol of it’s mission to develop great minds, and that symbol should be just as great.  Selecting 14 acres that were part of Schenley Farms, the land Mary Schenley had deeded to the city in 1898, Bowman relied on the assistance of the Mellon family to persuade the City of Pittsburgh to grant the land to the University to build the Cathedral of Learning.

Cathedral Of Learning

Bowman hired Charles Klauder, a well known architect from Philadelphia (who also designed Heinz Chapel) to design the building.  At first, the residents were not impressed.   They actually found it to be more of an eye-sore, as it looked to be much too large for the surrounding area, neighborhood and architecture.  Not to be dissuaded, Bowman and Klauder were determined to forge ahead, as they saw it as a beautiful monument to learning, and also had the vision to see that the area, and the University of Pittsburgh, would benefit greatly from such a profound landmark.  Remember, at the time, it would end up being the tallest educational building in the world.

Cathedral of Learning
A Community Effort To Build The Cathedral of Learning

A campaign begun to win over the hearts of the local residents.  The year before ground-breaking – 1925 – the University invited local school children to “Buy a Brick for Pitt”.  They were encouraged to send a dime to the University with a letter explaining how they had earned the money.  In return, they received a certificate stating that they had purchased a brick for the construction. 97,000 children sent dimes to the University of Pittsburgh to “Buy A Brick for Pitt” and help build the Cathedral of Learning.  Incredible!

The bulk of the money for construction came, however, from the 17,000 other individuals and local corporations with donations of materials for construction such as metal, paint, steel, glass and cement.  Remember… this is Pittsburgh.  We help each other out!  Ground was broken in 1926 and the Cathedral was open for classes in 1931 while the exterior was still under construction.  Completed in full by 1934, it was dedicated in 1937.

Cathedral of Learning
Original Photo By Pittsburgh Beautiful

The Nationality Rooms At the Cathedral of Learning

The exterior of the Cathedral was certainly impressive, and it’s effect on the skyline of Pittsburgh is legendary.  However, the legacy of Bowman was sealed in how he involved the immigrants that were the backbone of the growth of Pittsburgh in the interior styling of the building.  Upon breaking ground, the Chancellor made the incredible decision to invite each ethnic group represented in Pittsburgh to conceive, design and actually decorate one room.   Calling them the “Nationality Rooms“, they were to represent life in each of these countries, as it was prior to the University of Pittsburgh’s founding in 1787.

“Room Committees” were formed for each group represented.  The committees were completely responsible for everything relating to the room, from the fundraising, to the design and final completion of their representative space.  Once each Nationality Room at the Cathedral of Learning was completed, the University agreed to maintain the room “in perpetuity”, to preserve the original intent of the Nationality Rooms.  In return, each community represented by the Nationality Rooms agreed to hold events and fund raise for scholarships in the University’s scholarship abroad programs.

Instructions were given to each Nationality Room committee.  One of the most important was that the room was to depict the design, decorative or architectural traditions of the period selected by the particular ethnic region or nationality.  It had to be from a period prior to 1787.  All of the Nationality Rooms at Pitt are cultural in nature, no politics or political ideologies are depicted.  They range from the classical Greek design of the 5th Century B.C. to sixteenth century German Renaissance design.   The countries involved in a lot of the Nationality Rooms contributed materials and artifacts, at the requests of the committees.  It was not a short-term project.  The time to complete the Nationality Rooms at Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning ranged from 3 years to as long as 10 years.

The first four Nationality Rooms at the Cathedral were the Swedish, Scottish, Russian and German rooms, completed and dedicated in 1938.  Next was the Early American Room, originally meant to be a series of “Pennsylvania” rooms, but no more were built, dedicated later the same year.  1939 saw the dedication of the Yugoslav, Chinese, Czechoslovak and Hungarian rooms.

The original construction and dedication of Nationality Rooms continued through 1956 under the stewardship of Ruth Crawford Mitchell, the original appointee and head of the committee.  19 rooms were dedicated during this time.  After she retired, the program was dormant until 1965 when a new director, E. Maxine Bruhns, was appointed.  11 more rooms were dedicated since, the most recent dedication coming in 2015 – the Korean Room.  As of the time of this post, 3 more Nationality Rooms are under development… Finnish, Iranian and Philippine.  There are actually 2 more in the proposal stage – Moroccan and Thai.  With a cap of 33 Nationality rooms by the University, these final two would be in excess.  There are efforts to include these rooms ongoing at the University currently.

Of the 30 Nationality Rooms, 28 are still used as instructional classrooms.  2 are used for special events only.  The rooms are very popular tourist attractions as well, with over 100,000 visitors each year stopping in to witness the architecture and diversity of each room. There are guided and self-guided tours available during times when classes are not in session.


Popular Cathedral Of Learning Rooms

The Commons Room is another of the incredible architectural accomplishments of the Cathedral of Learning.  Constructed with walls of Indiana limestone and a Vermont slate floor, it is four stories high with a vaulted ceiling and covers over an acre of ground.

Cathedral of Learning
tlc photography/flickr

The Oval Room and the Croghan-Schenley Ballroom, originally in William Croghan Jr.’s Stanton Heights mansion were actually moved into the Cathedral of Learning in 1955.   They were deconstructed at the mansion and reconstructed in the Cathedral.  Legend has it that the ghost of Mary Schenley still spends some time in these rooms.

Cathedral of Learning
Courtesy University of Pittsburgh Campus Tour

The Cathedral of Learning, with it’s incredibly unique structure and view, is not only the most photographed building on Pitt’s campus… it’s one of the most photographed buildings in Pittsburgh.   The second tallest educational structure in the world, it was built with a steel frame (Pittsburgh at it’s finest!) and covered with Indiana limestone. At Pittsburgh Beautiful, we consider this building to be one of the most unique in the world, one of the most beautiful in Pittsburgh, and a rock-steady Pittsburgh landmark.  If you’re visiting Pittsburgh and the Universities… here is a list of some of the great things to do in Oakland.

And… if you’re hungry, try one of these unique restaurants near Pitt or CMU.

1 thought on “Cathedral of Learning In Pittsburgh

  1. You’d think that a story about a University would at least know the difference between “it’s” and “its”. Otherwise, it was a good history of the building. Several of my ancestors attended Pitt.

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