Saturday, March 28, 2020

Photo of the Day: The Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh PA

Rising out of the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, the 535-foot-tall Cathedral of Learning is not just a skyscraper but a wonderful mosaic of multi-cultural America at its best—and, I would have to imagine, a delightful academic environment. 

I first visited this site nearly 30 years ago. When I revisited this past October, I was glad to have the opportunity to refresh my memory of this 42-story structure—the second-tallest educational facility in the world after the University of Moscow’s main building. 

Several classrooms, occupied by students, were not open to the public on the day I walked the halls. But enough were to remind me of the rich global history so evident here: 26 “Nationality Classrooms,” including several ethnic groups represented in the polyglot metropolis of Pittsburgh, such as the Polish, Greek, Irish, Italian, African, Turkish, and Japanese rooms.

The building derived from the vision of University of Pittsburgh John G. Bowman, who conceived of a “high building, a tower—a tower singing upward that would tell the epic story of Pittsburgh.”

The final look of the building, created by Philadelphia architect Charles Zeller Klauder, more than fulfilled Bowman’s notion. The skyscraper was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975. It borrows design elements from the Gothic style of medieval European cathedrals, inspiring reverence in the service of a secular environment that undoubtedly creates devotion in the memories of those who pass through its halls.

Commissioned in 1921, the building came to fruition as the result of a remarkable $10 million public fundraising campaign in which the institution’s label served as an indispensable hook. Approximately 97,000 schoolchildren contributed a dime each certificate testifying that they were “Builders of the Cathedral of Learning.” The first class was held in the building 10 years later, with the formal dedication coming six years later.

At the time, objections were raised among some faculty members and the city of Pittsburgh as a whole that the height of the building did not fit it with its surroundings. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to view it now without a sense of wonder.

Any one of the classrooms here is worthy of a comment and its own separate page, and at some point over the next few months I will try to do so. But I wanted to lay down the markers here now.

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