September 2001


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Written by
David R. Eltz

Photography by D.J. Case

An Obsession with Culture |

Take a peek at the bountiful treasures of the Cathedral of Learning

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A university’s buildings stand like sentries, stoically guarding past and present. They are the cornerstones of campus, forming the foundation from which its community grapples with ideas that affect its members, cities, states, regions, nations. They are repositories and factories—at once museums for the timeless and mints of the future.

But we know so little about them. A recent tour sponsored by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and led by the Heinz Chapel staff, though, shed light on one of Pitt’s more storied buildings—the Cathedral of Learning. On the first floor in a quiet corridor, a massive red oak door opens into the Croghan-Schenley Ballroom. Kentucky transplant William Croghan built the Greek Revival style ballroom during the 1840s for his daughter, Mary, at their Pittsburgh home to introduce her to Pittsburgh society. The young woman (some say she was 16, 15, perhaps even 14), however, eloped with an English officer, Edward Wyndham Harrington Schenley, and moved away. Some 100 years later, the ballroom was removed from the crumbling house and restored in the Cathedral. The original beveled-glass chandelier hangs in the center, casting its glow on the oak flooring, an intricate marble fireplace, and eight Corinthian columns.

Up on the sixth floor, the Darlington Memorial Library reveals treasures of a different nature— a bountiful research collection of Western Pennsylvania Americana. Artifacts here detail the region’s colonial period, and the series of rooms, with their gray-green walls and barrister bookcases, appear as if they were the sitting rooms of a colonial general. In a way they are. Many of George Washington’s original letters and deeds are part of the library’s collection. Here one can turn the pages of a set of burgundy leather-bound volumes of Scots Magazine, dating from 1739 to 1820, or trace world maps through a hand-colored 18th-century Dutch atlas, or take in the vibrant colors of a replica of a folio from James Audubon’s book Birds of America.

Some of Audubon’s birds, two peregrine falcons, live high up the Cathedral, now and then circling the roof as if on recognizance. Resembling the raptor’s natural habitat, high cliffs, the Cathedral makes for perfect roosting. Those who religiously watch the peregrines, which are endangered in Pennsylvania, say the birds have lived here since the mid-’90s. So far, no one has seen a nest. Still, enthusiasts flock here each day, hefting binoculars and telescopes, tilting their heads skyward, hoping to glimpse a fledgling. For the Cathedral is remarkable, and proof of its sheltering a new special life would only be fitting.
—David R. Eltz

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