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.

In the middle of Oakland, in the heart of the Pitt University, sits an awe-inspiring piece of architecture known as the Cathedral of Learning. This was the first location of our field trip last Friday with 21st Century Cyber Charter school.


Friday began early as we needed to be down at Mercy Hospital (North Side) by 8:00 am for Ozzie’s discharge. The discharge process was as smooth and effortless as all other fascites of the program. I arrived and his belongings were packed, his scripts for medication refills were written and in an envelope, and discharge papers were on the desk awaiting my signature. In 10 minutes Ozzie and his belongings were loaded in the car and we were headed to the other side of Pittsburgh for our school outing.

21st Century Cyber Charter School, the school my four oldest belong to, is headquartered on the eastern side of the state but every month or two a group of teachers venture west for an outing in our neck of the woods. When this happens we try to attend. First, because their outings are always awesome, but more importantly because the kids love getting to interact with the teachers they love face to face.


This meeting up with teachers was especially special as it was Mr. Winterode’s 40th birthday. Mr. Winterode has taught both my girls and both my girls consider him a very favorite teacher. He also happens to be Molly’s learning coach (the equivalent of a homeroom teacher in traditional school.)

Because it was his birthday and he was spending the day with a group of students instead of some other way he could be celebrating,  his students decided to surprise him with birthday surprises like homemade gifts, birthday cheesecake, birthday cards, and Tatum filled his car with balloons when he wasn’t looking. The outpouring of love was a testament to what an incredible teacher he is and how loved he is by his students.


Our field trip was split into two parts with visits to two Pitt landmarks.We began at the Cathedral of Learning.

Here is a little about this amazing building:

 “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.”

The building itself was impressive beyond belief with the kids remarking about how Hogwarts-like it was. It did have the feel of a Midevil castle.


We gathered on the first floor and waited for the last few families to arrive. It was a perfect opportunity to get some photos of the co-op kids that attended.


Once everyone had arrived we began the tour of the Nationality Rooms.


Here is information taken from Pitt’s website about the Nationality Rooms:

“Dr. Bowman, who became Chancellor after World War I, was charged with developing a great university in a city richly populated with first-generation immigrant families.  He was indeed the right person to be in a stimulating environment faced with a formidable challenge and a maze of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The building of the new tower is a story in itself, superbly told by Dr. Bowman in a privately-printed edition entitled Unofficial Notes. The parallel project of creating nationality classrooms to serve as a real and symbolic base for the soaring tower is what concerns us here.

It was Dr. Bowman’s desire to provide students with unique classrooms which would reflect a highly-creative period in the motherlands of Pittsburgh’s new citizens. He conceived the idea of inviting community representatives of diverse nations to plan and build classrooms depicting an era or aspect of the heritage they had brought to America. To direct this program, Dr. Bowman appointed Ruth Crawford Mitchell as his special assistant. A lecturer in economics with extensive European experience that had forged a bond of affection and understanding with these transplanted people, Dr. Mitchell set about her task with enthusiasm, boundless energy, and imagination. It took thirty years.

The flood of community excitement and pride stimulated by the University’s invitation soon was channeled into serious study of the history, art, religion, philosophy, customs, and traditions of those nations. The task of identifying the concepts or themes which would best represent each cultural heritage was an important first step.

Principles were established which dictated that each room should represent a nation accorded diplomatic recognition by the United States government. In that post-World War I-era, it was decided that the content of every room was to be cultural, with the only political reference permitted being a symbol carved in stone above the room’s corridor entrance. No living person would be portrayed, and the room’s design would represent a period pre-dating the American constitution and the founding of the University in 1787.

Parallel committees abroad were formed for each room to assist in consulting or design, recommending architects, selecting the finest materials, artists and artisans to design the space and furnishings.

The Depression, occurring a scant four years after the first committees were formed, haunted the fundraising efforts of these people of modest income. Proceeds from church events, Kennywood Park benefits, bake sales and concerts, augmented by donations from individuals, fraternal unions, social groups, and, frequently, by gifts from foreign governments, eventually provided the amounts necessary to build nineteen rooms by 1957.

With the 1930’s came the rise of fascism in Europe and the turmoil which culminated in World War II.  

Delicate negotiations abroad involving the rooms were interrupted and complicated by the onrush of events affecting many of the nations and the United States.

The leather-bound volumes of the Nationality Rooms archives carefully document unfolding dramas, such as the events which prevented the German and Italian Rooms’ completion until after the war; the successful 1934 nationwide fund drive conducted in the United States by the Chinese Room Committee, when hostilities in Manchuria delayed the donation pledged by the Chinese government; the sadly prophetic words spoken by Jan Masaryk at the dedication of the Czechoslovak Room in 1939; and the haste to ship the Pentelic marble columns for the Greek Room before war closed the Mediterranean to American shipping in 1940. 

Between 1938 and 1957 each room was dedicated in an impressive ceremony in the Commons Room. Archbishops, diplomats, choirs, University representatives, students and townspeople joined in celebrating the completion of these gifts to the University bestowed by proud, diligent communities.

A rich variety of styles emerged to symbolize a “golden age” in the history or tradition of each nation. No expense was spared to insure authenticity, quality and durability.

A typical room on the 1st floor (those built between 1938 and 1957) took between three and ten years to complete, and would have cost the equivalent of $356,405 USD today, which was no small undertaking, especially considering that the fundraising and construction of the initial rooms took place during the Great Depression and World War II. More recent rooms have cost in the range of $750,000 USD and up and taken up to ten years to complete.

The committees realized they were not only building rooms for themselves, but for many generations to come. Timelessness was sought and achieved with a rare degree of success.

In 1957, following Ruth Crawford Mitchell’s retirement, eight years went by with no new room initiatives.

In 1987, a new collection of rooms were assembled on the third floor of the Cathedral of Learning.”  

I have lived in Pittsburgh for over two decades, and even attended classes in the Cathedral of Learning, but had never toured the Nationality Rooms so I was very excited for this school outing.

We began our tour on the third floor with an incredible tour guide who gave us an informative overview of each room, the culture of that country, and the construction of that room. This two hour tour took us through 10-12 of the 30 nationality rooms.


Here are some of the rooms we toured:

Irish Room

The Irish Classroom is the smallest of the Nationality Rooms.The limestone room is designed in Irish Romanesque style, which flourished from the 6th to the 12th centuries and is similar in type, size, and materials to oratories first built on the west coast of Ireland.


Armenian Room

The Armenian Room, commemorating the world’s first Christian nation, is inspired by the library in the Sanahin monastery, built in the 10th to 12th centuries. Its diagonal arches were designed to withstand earthquakes.


Asante Temple Courtyard

Pittsburgh’s African American community chose to represent their cultures through an Asante temple courtyard incorporating the arts, science, music and languages of African’s ancient kingdoms


Austrian Room

The Austrian Room’s 18th century Baroque style will reflect the zenith of the Austrian Empire under the Habsburgs.  Elements of the Haydn Saal in Schloss Esterhazy at Eisenstadt combine to form a unique elegance.

Austrian Room

Indian Room

The Indian Room celebrates the nation’s educational and architectural heritage during India’s Golden Age.


Swiss Room

The Swiss Nationality Room was dedicated on April 22nd, 2012.  The room is modeled upon the Zurich Room (Frauminster Abbey) exhibited at the Landsmuseum in Zurich.  It is in a Late Medieval style, circa 1500 and it is typical of Swiss communal rooms used for meetings and classes.


They were all incredible and the tour made me want to return on another day to see more of the rooms.


At the end of the tour Rusty made the decision to purchase a souvenir of the Nationality Rooms with his own money. They were selling packets of currency with coins from the countries represented by the Nationality Rooms. So Rusty used his money to by money. 🙂


Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Pittsburgh outing: The Soldiers and Sailors Museum.

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