THE MALLEABLE LANGUAGE OF MANY CULTURES IS PRESERVED
IN THE WOOD AND STONE OF PITT'S NATIONALITY ROOMS.
ROOMS WITH A VIEW
WRITTEN BY MARK COLLINS
The same happens to many Americans, only in reverse. Time and oceans isolate us from our forebears' native lands. Succeeding generations lose their language, then their dialect, then their accent altogether. Folk clothes and folk customs give way to suburban houses and Chevrolets. Soon our identity has melded into the melting pot, which is exactly what our immigrant ancestors wanted: a new life in the New World.
Subsequent offspring, however, begin yearning for the past. Lost in the hegemony of modern culture, they feel along the bark of the family tree, mapping the limbs, seeking the route to the roots.
But grammar and lexicon are finite. Names of long-dead relatives cannot re-create Rome or Bosnia, Beijing or Sweden. The language of memory has its limits.
This, however, is a story of connection. A story of the shared language of stone and brick and wood and dreams.
It's summer 1996. Pittsburgh artist Celeste Parrendo kneels atop a six-foot scaffold in Room 314 of the Cathedral of Learning. It's now 58 years since the
With the room set to open in three weeks, Parrendo, dressed in a splattered shirt and torn black jeans, makes last-minute additions to three murals on the ceiling. Large glass doors open onto a small balcony overlooking Forbes Avenue. The once-plain, rectangular classroom has given way to something else. Gone are the standard-issue school desks and green-toned blackboard. The room is empty, except for Parrendo and her art.
The Baroque murals are a reduced reproduction of those found in Schloss Esterhazy, a royal castle in Eisenstadt, Austria. The murals--a collection of bold, colorful figures from Roman mythology--adorn the concert hall there where Kapellmeister Franz Joseph Haydn wrote and performed his compositions. Duplicating the style of the originals, painted by seventeenth-century Italian artist Carpoforo Tencalla, was a technical challenge. Parrendo's one-week visit to Eisenstadt and Vienna, courtesy of the Austrian Committee, turned out to be crucial. "At first I wasn't sure if it was necessary for me to spend time in Austria," Parrendo admits now. "But there's a certain way that Tencalla painted the shadows by using line shading and glazes. Some of the glazes are transparent, allowing the color underneath to show through. It's subtle. You can't see it in a photograph. You have to see it in person."
This careful attention to precise details has been the shared history of every Nationality Room. But the Nationality Rooms aren't about re-creation or imitation. The rooms--the walls, the floor, the lighting, the details--must connect with a culture. The architecture can't be static nostalgia but a slice of dynamic life, a snapshot of one moment in a fluid national history. And so the story continues.
This is how the story began. in January 1921, the University's new chancellor, John Gabbert Bowman, boarded a train in Chicago and came to Pittsburgh. What he found here must have troubled him: an institution more than a million dollars in debt; a few usable buildings scattered among dilapidated army barracks left over from World War I.
His tour of the city's leading industrialists and financiers wasn't much more encouraging. Alumni support was weak, philanthropic dollars scarce. But Bowman didn't back away. At his very first meeting with Pitt's board, one trustee said he hoped Bowman could raise $100,000. Bowman responded that $100,000 would just about pay interest on Pitt's debt for a year. A more realistic figure to meet Pitt's needs, Bowman said, was $15 million.
"The whole room seemed to grow cold," Bowman later recalled.
Richard K. Mellon, class of 1876, brother of A.W. Mellon, advised Bowman to "talk about a plan. Not money--a plan." And, a few months later, Bowman had a plan. "An architect could make stones talk," he later recalled. "Why not record in stone what Pittsburgh, an Inland Empire, really is? Why not put up a building which itself will tell the spirit of Pittsburgh...a tower. Why not build a tower?"
What looks like splendid ingenuity in retrospect must have seemed insane to many contemporaries. A stone skyscraper? For a university? What was Bowman thinking?
Apparently Bowman was thinking quite a bit. The 42-story Cathedral of Learning would not only house the typical utilitarian classrooms (albeit a lot of them), but another concept as well: a circle of special classrooms surrounding a vast Commons Room. "People who see the tall building from the outside," Bowman said, "must not be disappointed when they enter."
But Bowman's dream would come at a cost. The Cathedral itself took a massive fund-raising effort. The multi-million
Perhaps it was those same schoolchildren who inspired Bowman's answer. Pittsburgh in the 1920s looked like Europe's branch campus. More than a quarter of the city's population had been born abroad; another fifth were the offspring of foreign-born parents. At Pitt itself, one of every three students was foreign-born or the child of an immigrant. If the talents and resources of this polyglot community could only be harnessed...
It's inaccurate to call the Nationality Rooms solely the brainchild of John Gabbert Bowman. His dream for the rooms was shaped as well by the first director, Ruth Crawford Mitchell. It was Mitchell, a lecturer on immigration in the University's sociology department, who managed the many and minute details in each room. Only 35, she may have seemed young for the task, but she was already a veteran traveler for the international Red Cross and had researched and penned (at Bowman's behest) a three-volume history of the national origins of Pitt students.
Mitchell, like Bowman, was tenacious. James Knox (Arts and Sciences '42), remembers studying in the Commons Room one day in 1941. A woman approached him and asked, "What family might you be a part of?"
"I had no idea what she meant," says Knox now. "Turns out she wanted to know my nationality." Mitchell invited Knox for tea and cookies, something she often did in the Commons Room to lure in volunteers for the Nationality Rooms. Knox did volunteer--and has continued to serve off and on for the last 55 years, including long stints as chair of the Irish Room Committee and chair of the Nationality Rooms Council.
Mitchell and Bowman shared an appreciation for the city, an appreciation perhaps lost at the time on native Pittsburghers. They traveled to the mill towns and ethnic enclaves surrounding the city. In Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh, Robert Alberts notes that raising money may have been Bowman's first purpose, but he was "genuinely moved by the distress of parents and grandparents of young people--including those who were attending the University--who were ashamed of their national origins, bored by talk of the homeland, and embarrassed by...foreign dress and old-country customs."
In reply, Bowman and Mitchell talked up their novel idea. "Some of those people didn't speak much English," says James Knox, "but they knew what Bowman was talking about."
Bowman and Mitchell envisioned special rooms that would be founded and funded by ethnic committees, designed by native architects using indigenous materials, yet each room functioning as a true, usable classroom. They sought non-political designs that would express the best of each culture's history prior to 1787--the founding of the University and the birth of America's Constitution.
The response was immediate, but the process lengthy. The Depression (which began three days after the last steel beam had been placed atop the Cathedral) chilled fund raising for nearly a decade. But by 1936, 17 committees were at work, raising more than $150,000. Like the donations from Pittsburgh's schoolchildren, the contributions were often small--a few dollars from a bake sale or concert, or passing the hat at the local social club. (The French, being French, funded their room through a series of Mardi Gras balls; the grand prize drawing was a trip on the S. S. Normandie.) But the money--and the endless planning--slowly made way. "John Bowman wasn't one to take no for an answer," recalls James Knox.
In 1979, several local Austrians and their descendants met to discuss the possibility of a Nationality Room dedicated to their culture. The path to completion was full of obstacles--a fairly typical path for most rooms. The problems were both philosophical and prosaic: What period best represents 1,000 years of Austrian culture? And how are we going to pay for it?
On paper, the process of bringing a Nationality Room to life seems relatively simple. And this simplicity, of course, is pure fiction. Truth is, every step of the way is fraught with decisions and details and approvals. The Austrian Committee--led over the years by Ivo Fischer, Rainer Jezek, Edward Kepes, Joseph M. Pandl, Dolores Stehr, Joseph Novak, Arliss Sturges, Betty McDermott--and a cast of hundreds, held concerts, brought in Austrian choral groups, hosted Christmas parties featuring St. Nikolaus, and basically ferreted out every penny to be had. But no work was more demanding or perplexing than selecting the room's design.
For instance, Austria's history is a complicated one-putting it on par with every other culture. The committee ultimately chose to focus on the Habsburgs, specifically Maria Theresa and her son, Joseph II, rulers from 1740-1790. Their enlightened policies--religious tolerance, compulsory education, abolition of servitude, and taxing, for the first time, clergy and nobility--brought prosperity and high culture to Austria. Bustling Vienna soon included such luminaries as Haydn and Mozart.
The Baroque design is a joint effort by Austrian architect Gerhard Schnšgass and Pittsburgher Gunther Kaier. Enormous crystal chandeliers with hand-cut prisms dominate the room; the walls are trimmed in gold leaf; the draperies and chairs made of lush red damask. The hand-crafted maple table mimics those found in the imperial dining room in Vienna's Hofburg. A mirrored cabinet houses the classroom's chalkboard.
The Austrian Room opened with much fanfare in June 1996. Austrian Ambassador Helmut Tuerk spoke at the dedication ceremonies, followed by a grand tour of the new room. ("How can the students concentrate with all those naked people on the ceiling?" asked one wide-eyed eight-year-old, looking up at the nude figures of Pan, Psyche, and Hermes.) The room, by all accounts, is a rousing success.
THE FIRST NATIONALITY ROOMS--Swedish, German, Russian, and Scottish--opened in July 1938. Those initial committees kept to the original guidelines. But using "native" materials and artisans required precision and travel. The painters for the Polish Room, for instance, requested one dozen fresh eggs every morning for their tempera paint. Wall frames in the Lithuanian Room are made of "bog oak," which acquires its dark color from spending decades submerged in marshlands where extraction is difficult. The walls of the Syria-Lebanon Room are liberally overlaid in gold leaf.
Bowman and Mitchell both wanted the rooms to remain politically neutral. Still, they couldn't buffer the rooms from the politics being played out in the world. In 1929, the Chinese government promised $5,000 to the Chinese Room, but their pledge was sidetracked for 10 years by political unrest. Greek architect John Travlos loaded the marble columns and pilasters on a ship only days before Greece was invaded in 1940.
Likewise, the Czechoslovak Room opened a few scant months before the Nazi invasion in 1939.
At the dedication ceremony, Czechoslovak leader Jan Masaryk commented, "When I am afraid for the souls of little innocent Czech and Slovak children, I will think of this building."
The pace of political change fueled a change in the Nationality Rooms' charter. With the malleable map of Europe altered twice in less than a generation, the requirement of a "recognized nationality" seemed too strict. Armenia, for instance, has a loyal list of descendants in the States, even though their country was decimated by forced exodus in 1915. Or there's the case of African Americans, who can claim roots in dozens of African countries. Their collective experience, however, called for a heritage room with a pan-African expression.
THE PARADOX inherent in the Nationality Rooms--between past and present, between politics and practicality--is now juggled by Ruth Crawford Mitchell's successor, E. Maxine Bruhns. In many ways, Mitchell and Bruhns are the only constants of the Nationality Rooms' fluid history. Committees and countries may come and go, but these two women have served as the dual threads connecting the Rooms' seven-decade history. Like Mitchell, Bruhns has a background built for the job--living abroad for much of her life, conversant in two foreign languages, an innate appreciation for culture in any context. It's her job to coordinate the thousand-plus details, oversee the 100,000 annual visitors to the rooms, and supervise Quo Vadis, the volunteer organization of students who serve as tour guides. And, also like Mitchell, Bruhns' personal stamp is prevalent: The quilt, washing basin and pitcher in the Early American Room all belonged to Bruhns' grandmother; many items for sale in the Nationality Rooms Gift Shop are purchased during Bruhns' overseas trips.
"I suppose that something like the Nationality Rooms could happen in other American cities--Detroit, New York, San Francisco," Bruhns says. "But I don't know of too many cities that are as unified, ethnically, as Pittsburgh is. We have some 9,000 people visiting the Rooms during the holiday season, people of all backgrounds."
As part of the Nationality Rooms' mission, the committees raise funds to help keep cultural studies alive. To date, more than 500 students have taken advantage of the Nationality Room scholarships, which pay room, board, tuition, and transportation for a summer in a foreign country. "The scholarships are the real meaning of the Rooms," says Knox, who has raised his share of scholarship money, including two in memory of Ruth Crawford Mitchell and John Gabbert Bowman. "Dr. Bowman said that the rooms were symbols that teach, and he was right, but the scholarships are the guts of the program."
Bruhns' office also provides a stable of speakers for local community groups. These speakers can show off some simple Greek dance steps, for instance, or demonstrate how Polish girls weave flower wreaths to throw into the Point State Park fountain during wianki on St. John's Eve, June 23, the Polish feast day of love. (The boy who picks it up is then matched with the wreath's maker.)
They seem like simple gestures--throwing a wreath of flowers into a fountain, or joining in a Greek dance. But even such innocent customs are top-heavy with history, the result of hundreds of years of a kept tradition.
What is preserved in the Nationality Rooms is our complicated past. To celebrate the best that our heritages offer is to celebrate what's good and lasting about ourselves, our parents, our children. Had we but world enough and time, we could dwell as scholars do on the endless complexity of each nation's history--or we could marvel at the cultural snapshot provided by the Nationality Rooms, provided by the holiday decorations, by our predecessors' vision, by the language of floating wreaths and wood and love and stone.