The Cathedral of Learning
"The building was to be more than a schoolhouse; it was to be a symbol of the life that Pittsburgh through the years had wanted to live. It was to make visible something of the spirit that was in the hearts of pioneers as, long ago, they sat in their log cabins and thought by candlelight of the great city that would sometime spread out beyond their three rivers and that even they were starting to build."
These are the words Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman used to describe the reason for designing the dramatic Gothic Revival tower now known as the Cathedral of Learning.
The University of Pittsburgh was well on the way to becoming an acropolis of neoclassical buildings on an Oakland hillside when John G. Bowman became the University's 10th chancellor in 1921. In those years following World War I, student enrollment had dramatically increased, causing a critical shortage of space. A 14-acre plot known as Frick Acres, which housed residences, gardens, and tennis courts, became the focus of Dr. Bowman's plans to erect a monumental building. A structure expanding upward, though unorthodox, would solve the growing University's problems of space and distance. More important, a tower would be a visible inspiration to all who approached the city. It would carry the message that education was the result of aspiring to great heights. The parallel lines of the truncated Gothic form, never meeting, would imply that learning is unending. The sweeping proportions would symbolize the spirit and achievement of Pittsburgh. Architect Charles Z. Klauder translated these concepts into drawings that guided the placement of steel and stone.
The challenge to help build a lasting landmark, unique to their city, evoked the participation of Pittsburgh's corporations and citizenry. Local industries gave large gifts of steel, cement, elevators, glass, plumbing and heating elements. In 1924, 17,000 men and women and 97,000 school children made individual contributions to help build the great tower. Today, many adults still have the certificates they received as school children upon contributing 10 cents, which they had earned themselves, to "buy a brick" in the Cathedral of Learning.
Excavation for the tower's foundation began on September 27, 1926. The same year, Dr. Bowman began, through Program Director Ruth Crawford Mitchell, to invite the city's ethnic communities to undertake the creation of nationality classrooms, which would enrich the new building with their old world heritages. After a decade of obstacles and triumphs, the building, rising 535 feet into the sky, was essentially completed. The steel frame structure is overlaid with Indiana limestone carved with Gothic ornamentation at each corner of the tower and stone window tracery terminating the alternately rising wings.
A medal struck in 1937 to commemorate the University's sesquicentennial bears this quotation by John G. Bowman:
THEY SHALL FIND WISDOM HERE AND FAITH - IN STEEL AND STONE - IN CHARACTER AND THOUGHT - THEY SHALL FIND BEAUTY - ADVENTURE - AND MOMENTS OF HIGH VICTORY
The Cathedral of Learning, the Nationality Rooms, and the Commons Room have been designated Pittsburgh Historic Landmarks.
Nationality Rooms Programs
1209 Cathedral of Learning
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Affiliated with the University Center for International Studies