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Many decades have passed since the first Nationality Room Committees formed and began to meet in a vine-covered frame house on Frick Acres, where the Cathedral of Learning now stands. The great tower was on the drawing boards, still a dream of Chancellor John G. Bowman and architect Charles Z. Klauder.

In 1926 ground was broken for the 42-story Gothic building. Keeping pace with the energy and idealism that gave form to the soaring structure was the Nationality Rooms Program, under the dynamic direction of Ruth Crawford Mitchell. The Program provided the spiritual and symbolic foundation of the tower as 26 rooms encircling the Commons Room were completed between 1938 and 2000.

The work began in nationality communities of Allegheny County as they responded to the invitation from Chancellor Bowman to create classrooms that would represent highly creative periods or aspects of their heritage. Men, women, and children in church, school, fraternal, labor, and social organizations labored with pride to finance these unique gifts to a burgeoning urban university where generations of their descendants would study.

The enthusiasm spread across the nation and seas to the motherlands, where committees were formed to assist in planning the rooms. In many cases, governments responded with generous support, often providing architects, artists, materials, and monetary gifts to assure authenticity and superb quality in their classrooms.

The determination of these remarkable people to establish monuments to their cultural heritage carried them through decades of traumatic times. The Great Depression and the desperate dramas that unfolded during World War II, as their nations were pitted against each other in political and ideological struggle, failed to deter them from their goals.

The Nationality Rooms are expressions of timeless human values. In these rooms themes are rendered in wood and glass, iron and stone, fabric, color, and words. Inspiration flows from such varied sources as Athens in the time of Pericles, a palace hall in Beijing's Forbidden City, an ancient monastic Indian university, flowers that grow in Czech and Slovak valleys, a 6th-century oratory from Ireland's Golden Age, an Asante temple courtyard in Ghana, London's House of Commons, and the intimate hearth-centered life of America's early New Englanders. Enduring concepts spanning time and space are clearly expressed for all to interpret: honesty, courage, love of nature, order, faith, freedom, respect for learning, the urge to create beauty.

Among the documents placed in the Cathedral of Learning cornerstone, set in 1937, is a copper plate engraved with these thoughts expressed by the Nationality Room Committee chairpersons to the University:

"Faith and peace are in their hearts. Good will has brought them together. Like the Magi of ancestral traditions and the shepherds of candid simplicity, they offer their gifts of what is precious, genuine and their own, to truth that shines forever and enlightens all people."

Upon completion of their rooms, the committees turn to a vigorous program of intercultural exchange. Active groups such as the Women's International Club and the Nationality Council augment the room committees. Many other organizations are officially affiliated with committees, cosponsoring cultural and fundraising events. Since 1948, annual scholarships numbering more than 700 have enabled University of Pittsburgh students and faculty to study; lectures, concerts, exhibits, and social events highlight facets of some 28 heritage's; distinguished international visitors are received by the committees at the University; special projects range from the purchase of books for the University libraries to publication of volumes on comparative literature as well as ethnic recipes. National, traditional, and religious holidays are celebrated on campus, and the committees decorate their rooms or mount displays to commemorate special occasions. Committees sponsor workshops on ethnic studies and foster courses in the mother languages.

It is difficult to measure the educational impact of the Nationality Rooms since 1938 when the first ones were completed. University classes meet in the classrooms from early morning until late at night, amidst surroundings designed to enhance the learning experience. A single hand-carved chair or a stained glass portrait may set the viewer on a rewarding quest. A steady stream of people -- often families of three generations -- come to see the world-famous rooms, which evoke pride in their own heritage and warm appreciation of other cultures.

Since 1944, members of Quo Vadis, a student organization, study the rooms in great detail and conduct guided tours for nearly 30,000 visitors each year. Special interpretations are adapted for children, senior citizens, the handicapped, and groups with special interests such as architecture, interior design, art, mythology, or religion.

The emphasis on ethnic identity and the search for one's ancestral roots is reflected in the committees formed to create new classrooms representing the cultures of Denmark, Switzerland, the Philippines and Latin America. As these rooms take their places around the Commons Room, they will add new dimensions of pride and understanding to the unique totality of America's heritage.

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The Nationality Rooms Programs
1209 Cathedral of Learning
Pittsburgh, PA 15260

Phone/tours 412-624-6000

Affiliated with the University Center for International Studies