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  Workers begin cleaning the exterior of the Cathedral of Learning as part of a preservation project.

High Victory

Preserving our architectural treasures

One school day at Lincoln Elementary in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, a youngster and his classmates were shown a drawing of an implausible skyscraper unlike anything they’d seen before. The building, as drawn, had elegant mini-turrets and refined stone fretwork and arched windows. Everything about the structure reached upward. It was a building that seemed to embody good things, high aspirations.
The class was told that the drawing showed a tower that was not yet built, and it’s name would be the Cathedral of Learning.

The youngster—who was the son of a preacher—asked, If it’s a cathedral, why doesn’t it have a steeple at the top? The teacher’s response amounted to some sustaining words of wisdom: Learning doesn’t have a peak. It’s a boundless, lifelong process. So, in the youngster’s mind, the Cathedral of Learning’s top was open—spireless—to reflect the unlimited possibilities of learning.

That youngster was Robert Lavelle. His experience that day was part of a broad, enthusiastic campaign in the 1920s and ’30s to involve the Pittsburgh community in supporting the Cathedral’s bricks-and-mortar birth. Many years after that classroom discussion, he received his first degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Lavelle (KGSB ’54, CBA ’51) is founder of Lavelle Real Estate and executive vice president of Dwelling House Savings and Loan.

According to Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh, 1787-1987 by Robert Alberts, the birth of the Cathedral was accompanied by plywood sihouettes of the structure displayed in downtown shop windows. These wooden models were typically 6’ high, painted to resemble stone, and accompanied by inspirational messages like “A gate for boys and girls to useful and satisfying careers.” One company on Wood Street displayed in its window a cake-dough model of the building, with icing made to look like limestone. A grocery store on Federal Street set up a window display with the Cathedral represented by 500 milk containers, while ground coffee and sugar were spread around to create the landscape. Meanwhile, streetcars glided around the city with banners declaring “It’s Our University.”

That campaign, cajoled into existence by then-Pitt Chancellor John Bowman, has been recognized as one of the first modern fundraising drives. It involved many Pittsburgh businesses, philanthropic groups, and individuals. More than 97,000 schoolchildren contributed a dime each to “buy a brick” and receive a certificate testifying that they were “Builders of the Cathedral of Learning.”

The certificates read in part, “Be it known that the Cathedral of Learning is to open chances to boys and girls: first, to do honest and useful work; second, to learn what work is best for each to do and how to do it; third, to gain life within themselves, which is creative and beautiful, thereby making themselves happy and others about them happy; and, fourth, to help in these ways to make Pittsburgh a city in which they will always be proud to live.”

These are the principles upon which the Cathedral of Learning was built—and its alchemy of masonry, ironwork, limestone, and glass still reflect the optimism and aspirations that were evident to Robert Lavelle in that early drawing during his elementary school days. Today, the Cathedral is a stunning and symbolic architectural landmark that embodies the University of Pittsburgh for graduates, faculty, staff, friends, and visitors from around the world.

This year, as the University celebrates the 220th year of its founding, the Cathedral of Learning is undergoing a much-needed preservation project—the first large-scale exterior preservation work since the building’s completion in 1937.

“In launching this important project, designed to preserve the Cathedral for future generations” says Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, “we also reaffirm our gratitude and respect for the hard work, generous contributions, and very real sacrifices made by those who came before us.”

The $4.8 million preservation work will repair cracked stones and loose mortar caused by expansion and contraction of the weather-exposed materials over time. The project’s most visible aspect will be the cleaning of 70 years of soot and grime from the 42-story, 535-foot-high Gothic Revival tower. Large areas of the building’s façade are covered with a residue of carbons, sulfur dioxides, and moisture-trapping gyp-sum from past eras that will continue to deteriorate the stone over time if not removed.

“With this undertaking, the University of Pittsburgh is moving decisively to meet its responsibility to preserve and enhance one of the most beautiful and distinctive urban campuses to be found anywhere, a campus filled with an invaluable and irreplaceable collection of architectural treasures,” says Chancellor Nordenberg. “The crown jewel in this collection is the Cathedral of Learning.”

The current preservation project is an important step in the University’s continuing initiative to preserve and enhance its architectural treasures. Other recent work includes the renovation of the University Honors College and the construction of the McCarl Center for Nontraditional Student Success in the Cathedral; interior renovation of the Stephen Foster Memorial; the award-winning transformation of Heinz Chapel into a handicapped-accessible facility; and the conversion of the Masonic Temple into Pitt’s Alumni Hall, which won several architectural preservation awards.

John Bowman was Pitt’s Chancellor from 1921 to 1945. It was his vision, persistence, and sheer will that created the building so beloved and admired today. Bowman was chancellor when the young Robert Lavelle saw, in his elementary school classroom, that intriguing drawing of a cathedral without a spire.

A generation ago, thousands of people of all ages saw the Cathedral’s promise and its hope, and they embraced the ideals expressed in the tower’s soaring architecture with enthusiasm, hard work, and self-sacrifice. Now, it’s time to ensure that the University’s architectural crown jewel remains an enduring beacon of aspiration and learning for all who pass this way.

Perhaps Bowman said it best during the Cathedral of Learning’s construction: “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.”

May these words ring true, always. To preserve this legacy, please visit or call 1-800-817-8943.

Notes from Novak

The University of Pittsburgh’s landmark capital campaign has broken many fundraising records; achieved many institutional goals; and, most importantly, helped to lay the foundation for future generations of Pitt people. Thanks to the extraordinary generosity of Pitt alumni and friends, our fundraising efforts have raised more than $1.063 billion to support the University!

When we started this campaign, we began with a vision for excellence and a bold new concept for support. Now, nearly 10 years later, gifts from donors have helped to transform the University of Pittsburgh into an even greater institution of higher education. Your support will impact the lives of students and faculty far into the future.

Here are a few ways we have made a difference together through fundraising:

  • We have helped thousands of students earn the promise of a college education by creating 381 new endowed scholarships and fellowships;
  • Our efforts have helped the University attract and retain the nation’s best educators by establishing 90 new endowed chairs and professorships;
  • The campaign has provided researchers with the resources to make groundbreaking academic and medical discoveries; and
  • We have helped bring additional world-class facilities to the University’s Pittsburgh campus and the regional campuses in Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown, and Titusville.

Thank you for supporting Pitt—our students, our faculty, and staff—with your generosity. You truly are helping us build a better tomorrow for future generations—one gift at a time. Hail to Pitt!

—Al Novak

For more information about the Discover a World of Possibilities campaign, go online:

Campaign Watch

Institutional Advancement is committed to reaching the University’s ambitious new $2 billion goal. Pitt’s alumni and friends have contributed generously, making our current campaign status $1.063 billion!

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