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It has been around so long that most people don’t remember a time when it didn’t exist. Yet, throughout its history, the Cathedral of Learning hasn’t been without change. In fact, change is very much a part of the Cathedral’s future.

Standing Tall

Meghan Holohan

 Ric Evans Photograph
It’s hot in the depths of the University’s most recognizable building. Trickles of sweat trail down the backs of my legs. As our footsteps echo throughout the passageway, I hear nearby machines chug and whir, filling the space with white noise. The walls look like slate—gray and smooth. Phil Hieber plays with a key ring and pulls open a heavy door; we walk into what might be a storage room. Fluorescent lights give everything inside a sickly look. Pipes span across the ceiling, and some huge green machinery roars, processing steam piped in from the nearby “cloud factory,” the

Bellefield Boiler Plant, which provides heat to the 40 stories above.

I’m in the bowels of the Cathedral of Learning. Yes, bowels. This isn’t the basement with the Starbucks and the food court. This is the bottom. A labyrinth where the University Printing Press lives; where the University’s tradesmen, carpenters, electricians, and custodians have their shops; where the theater arts students congregate to construct sets; where there is a locked underground maze. Hieber, senior area manager for Facilities Management, has a key. We could go through, but my guide for the day warns it is especially hot in there, really wet heat. No thanks.

All around me is the alleged quicksand that was to stop Chancellor John G. Bowman from erecting his tall building. In 1921, Bowman stood in front of the media, faculty, and trustees, telling them about his tall building. William J. Holland, a trustee of the University, scoffed at the plan, noting the deep bed of quicksand that existed on the proposed site. He reportedly added, “It’s lucky that the quicksand is there. The whole plan is nonsense.”

But the Chancellor produced a cylindrical piece of rock—steely gray—explaining this was the so-called quicksand. And, having a sense of humor or perhaps a sense of self-assuredness, he gave all in attendance a souvenir piece of stone that could be used as a paperweight.

Bowman didn’t originally call his tall building the Cathedral of Learning. Some say a Scottish employee of architect Charles Klauder first uttered the words “Cadral of Larnin,” and the name stuck. The Woolworth Building in New York City was the first gothic cathedral skyscraper, and people referred to it as the Cathedral of Commerce, so calling Pitt’s tall building the Cathedral of Learning seemed logical.

The Cathedral, 600,000 square feet, is still the tallest academic building in the Western Hemisphere, and only a tower at Moscow State University in Russia is taller. (Although, Moscow’s building just has a taller spire.)

Bowman never cared whether the Cathedral was the tallest in the world; rather, he wanted to create an identity for the University in a steel town. When talking about the grand structure, people now say that Bowman was a genius, he had a vision. However, at the time, most thought his vision was misguided.

As part of my tour, Hieber and I travel up a series of elevators, all the way to the 40th. (There isn’t a 39th floor. Legend has it that the 39th floor perished on the drawing board because the Gulf Building, owned by the Mellons, had 39 floors, and the Mellons preferred that no other building in Pittsburgh have the identical number of floors.) On the way to the top, Hieber explains that when you’re on the 40th floor, you can feel the building sway on a windy day. There is no swaying today. No wind.

I find myself standing in the Babcock Room, a majestic conference room if ever there was one. With a stately table smack in the middle, this room could be a secret meeting place for Batman, Superman, and the SuperFriends. The color scheme for the carpet and drapes is—what else?—blue and gold. Hieber pulls back one of the curtains, and we peer out of the large window. All of Pittsburgh sprawls before us. Right outside, a peregrine falcon swivels her head around and squawks. And squawks. Hieber apologizes, explaining that this is where her nest is, and she is protecting it. That’s why we cannot go out on the balcony, unless we want a mother swooping down to defend her young. She has been bothered enough. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and Pennsylvania Game Commission recently placed bands around the chicks’ legs, so the latest members of an endangered species can be tracked.

Next, Hieber takes me to the home of one of the Cathedral’s renovated tenants, the Honors College. After a year or so of renovations on the 35th and 36th floors, the Honors College quarters have many of the same architectural characteristics as the Commons Room, including metalwork that echoes the Commons Room fixtures and the same green slate floors as those on the first floor.

We descend a few more floors. Hieber turns and walks to the end of the hallway, pulling out his keys to unlock another door. Inside, the walls are covered with tile that looks like it’s left over from the 1950s. Tall metal cabinets—housing the computer system that controls the original Westinghouse elevators—lean against the wall. The center of the room is raised. On top of this platform are two metal mounds with coils of thick silver cables heaving the elevators up and down the tower.

Soon, I’m told there will be a better way to shuttle students to classrooms and offices in the upper echelons. Computer kiosks will control the cars. A student will walk up to a computer, type in, say, floor five (which, incidentally, is not just home to the English department, but is also the center of gravity for the building), and the computer will send everyone going to floor five and maybe six and seven to the same car. Someone going to an upper floor won’t have to stop at several other floors on the way (which, today, is one way to see the Cathedral, though not the most popular). The University hopes to start the planning phase of this project this school year.

There was another renovation completed last year, The College of General Studies (CGS) opened its own architectural wonder of stone and metal on the fourth floor—the McCarl Center for Nontraditional Student Success, giving all CGS students a spacious conference room, a computer lab with all the amenities of high speed computers, yet with the privacy students don’t typically find in the massive labs.

With a building like the Cathedral, Hieber explains renovations and improvements are constant. Recently, there have been several noteworthy upgrades, giving the gothic building more of the perks of a 21st-century edifice. A utilities spine from the bowels to the 40th floor has been constructed, taking a year to build. Every floor can plug into it for amenities like air conditioning, telecommunications, and additional power.

Perhaps the biggest change for the Cathedral is yet to come. In a way, it’s not a change at all. The University is considering plans to restore the façade to its original grandeur, not seen since Chancellor Bowman’s era, many decades ago. For the long-awaited inaugural bathing, Ana Guzman, associate vice chancellor for facilities management, reveals that after much experimenting with abrasive substances and liquids, her department has discovered the magic ingredients needed to make this happen—water, baking soda, and elbow grease. That concoction will clean but not damage the limestone and the aluminum window frames. Funds for the cleaning, estimated around $3.5 million, have to be raised before a start date is set. Once begun, the cleaning should take about a year.

When Bowman started as chancellor in 1921, he found a University that was growing rapidly, but the campus wasn’t keeping up. It was a collection of crumbling army barracks and a smattering of neo-Greek buildings. He needed space—13 million cubic feet of space—for classrooms and offices. While thinking of where he could find it, he recalled one of the first times he took the streetcar to the University. As he rode through the streets of Oakland, he realized he couldn’t discern the University from the other buildings. The University needed a structure to set it apart, to use the steel that the immigrant laborers worked with every day, a building to show that industry didn’t exclude education. So, he decided to put the University in a skyscraper.

A slew of challenges faced Bowman as he tried to build the tower. He struggled to find funding for the land, struggled to get the city and the population to support the plan, and struggled to find an architect he considered worthy of the project. One by one Bowman overcame the obstacles, culminating in the hiring of Charles Klauder, a nationally known architect based in Philadelphia.

Throughout the planning stages, Klauder produced sketch after sketch of the proposed tall building. Bowman liked none of them. Reportedly, during a late-night work session in Klauder’s living room, the architect became increasingly frustrated at Bowman’s constant rejections. Klauder turned on the phonograph, perhaps to ease the tension, and listened to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Suddenly, Klauder started drawing, inking the layered façade and high arches, peaking in sync with the crests of the music. He had done it. Bowman would finally have his tall building.

When the Depression hit, the Cathedral wasn’t yet finished. Bowman wasn’t deterred. He devised partial alternative funding by convincing the Pittsburgh community to pitch in. School children paid a dime for a brick apiece in the Cathedral (many alumni and Pittsburghers alike still have their certificates proving ownership of one brick). The Cathedral wasn’t just an ivory tower in the more literal sense, it was Pittsburgh’s tower, too.

But Bowman wanted the community to have more than just proof of ownership. He charged Ruth Crawford Mitchell with designing the Nationality Rooms. Mitchell went into the ethnic neighborhoods, encouraging groups to save money to build their own room in the building. Today, there are 26 rooms, with seven more nationality rooms on the horizon (Turkey, Latin America, Denmark, Switzerland, Wales, the Philippines, and Finland), each creatively funded by the respective ethnic groups.

And, of course, there is the haunted Early America room on the third floor, which resembles a 17th-century New England home, including a four-poster rope bed covered with a 150-year-old quilt. Not long after the quilt was placed on the bed, a custodian noticed that the quilt was turned down as if someone had slept there, even an indentation of a head on the pillow could be detected. Later, a tour guide and her group noticed the aroma of freshly baked bread in the room.

Then, a guide reported seeing the cradle rocking. Eventually, television crews and reporters spent nights in the room to see if a ghost had taken up residence there. To this day, years later, including my tour, there has been no official ghost sighting.

Perhaps, as intended, the most impressive part of the interior of the Cathedral is the Commons Room. To a child, the Commons Room might look like something from a castle, a dungeon, a banquet hall. Arches ebbing, point up, up, up, three stories high. The chandeliers hang at the end of thick black chains.

Although all the lighting was improved in the Commons Room, helping the flocks of students to study without the threat of eye-strain, an ambient mood fills the vast stone cavern that has been a haven for the studious at Pitt since the Cathedral’s completion in 1937. Hieber stops, ever the tour guide, pointing to various arches. When he speaks, it’s in hushed tones, seeking anonymity, mindful not to disturb the concentration of students.

His blue-and-gold, official-looking Pitt shirt is a giveaway, though, to those passing through the Commons Room that he is an employee. My tour guide gladly directs an elderly couple to the restrooms, then shows a family where the Nationality Rooms are. In the Cathedral, it seems, there is always something for him to do.

Meghan Holohan is an assistant editor of this magazine.

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