The Cathedral of Learning

The history of the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning. A 42-story skyscraper that serves as the educational centerpiece of the University of Pittburgh's main campus in Oakland.

By University of Pittsburgh Library System

The Idea

Pitt Weekly Student Newspaper (1924) by University of PittsburghUniversity of Pittsburgh Library System

First proposed in the 1920s, the idea for a skyscraper dedicated to education was a novel concept that required years of convincing, fundraising, and planning. The Cathedral of Learning was met with some resistance before becoming a beloved central figure of modern campus life. 

Initial Planning

Chancellor John G. Bowman (1940) by UnknownUniversity of Pittsburgh Library System

The Man Behind the Idea

The concept for a campus skyscraper was the idea of Chancellor John Bowman, who came to the University of Pittsburgh in 1921. 

Tribute to Charles Klauder (1938-11) by University of Pittsburgh Alumni ReviewUniversity of Pittsburgh Library System

The Man Behind the Design

Chancellor Bowman worked closely with Philadelphia architect Charles Zeller Klauder to ensure that all of his thoughts were included in the initial design of the building.

Pitt Weekly Student Newspaper (1924) by University of PittsburghUniversity of Pittsburgh Library System

"Skyscraper Edifice to Cost $10,000,000"

Bowman's tireless efforts to convince trustees and alumni that the building was feasible, while also raising money for the Cathedral’s construction, was a primary factor in the project’s success. 

Cathedral of Learning Site (1926) by Stone & Webster Engineering Corp.University of Pittsburgh Library System

Planning the Site

The site for the Cathedral of Learning was one of prominence in the Oakland neighborhood, surrounded by the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh Athletic Association, and Hotel Schenley. 

Buy a Brick Certificate (1925) by UnknownUniversity of Pittsburgh Library System

Funding the Construction

The public campaign to raise the final $7 million needed for the Cathedral construction included a campaign encouraging school children to "buy a brick" for the building by donating a dime. In return for their donation, students received a certificate from the University. 

Construction

Rising in Oakland (1929) by Stone & Webster Engineering Corp.University of Pittsburgh Library System

Beginning with the groundbreaking in 1926, the people of Pittsburgh spent the next decade eagerly watching the Cathedral of Learning rise above Oakland. Existing buildings nearby quickly appeared small in the shadow of the growing steel frame.

Taking Shape (1929) by Stone & Webster Engineering Corp.University of Pittsburgh Library System

As the building rose higher over Oakland, it began to take on the familiar shape of the Cathedral of Learning.

Steel Skeleton (1929) by Stone & Webster Engineering Corp.University of Pittsburgh Library System

The steel structure of the Cathedral of Learning was completed on October 21, 1929, with Chancellor Bowman driving the final rivet. 

Building the Cathedral of Learning (1930) by UnknownUniversity of Pittsburgh Library System

The stone for the façade of the bottom floors of the building was added last so workers could move construction materials into the structure more easily. 

Completed Cathedral of Learning (1937) by UnknownUniversity of Pittsburgh Library System

The building was dedicated in June 1937, but work to finish its many classrooms and offices extended well into the 1940s.

Inside the Cathedral of Learning

Czechoslovak Nationality Room, Bohumil Slama, 1931, From the collection of: University of Pittsburgh Library System
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Painting the Czechoslovak Nationality Room, Unknown, 1938, From the collection of: University of Pittsburgh Library System
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The Cathedral of Learning is filled with special classrooms on the first and third floors known as 'Nationality Rooms.'  The Nationality Rooms were conceived in 1926 to celebrate the many ethnic groups that contributed to the growth and success of the Pittsburgh region. Each room was to be designed in a style that pre-dated the 1787 founding of the University of Pittsburgh. Members of each nationality contributed to the room's fundraising, design, and furnishings.

Russian Nationality Room, Unknown, 1938, From the collection of: University of Pittsburgh Library System
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Close attention and detail went into each classroom. They were designed and furnished to reflect the history and culture of the regions for which they are named. Take the Russian Room, for example. This room reflects Eastern Byzantine influences on Russian art and religion, as seen through the details on the chairs, the lighting fixture, and the lectern. The tapestry, called a vishivka, is made out of 16th and 17th century fabrics and depicts St. George, Moscow's patron saint, slaying a dragon. 

The Cathedral of Learning and Campus Life

The Keystone of Campus (1958) by UnknownUniversity of Pittsburgh Library System

The Cathedral of Learning quickly became a centerpiece of campus life at the University of Pittsburgh. Since the 1930s, students have used the building and its surrounding green spaces to learn, socialize, and express themselves.

Students by Fireplace (1950) by University of PittsburghUniversity of Pittsburgh Library System

The Cathedral of Learning Commons Room has always been a spot for students to congregate and socialize, particularly in the winter months when holiday decorations and fires made the space even more welcoming. This photo was taken during an annual Christmas party in 1950.

Computer Center Sit-In (1969) by Black Action Society, University of Pittsburgh.University of Pittsburgh Library System

It has also served as a place for student demonstrations. For example, on January 15, 1969, a group of 25 Black students locked themselves inside the computer center on the 8th floor of the Cathedral of Learning to draw attention to the challenges Black students faced on campus. 

Sunbathers on the Cathedral Lawn (1990) by Kenneth J. KobusUniversity of Pittsburgh Library System

Even the lawn surrounding the Cathedral of Learning is a popular place for students to play games, study or just hang out. 

The Cathedral of Learning is a beloved part of Pitt's campus and holds a special place in the hearts of Pitt students. While the idea of a skyscraper dedicated to education may have initially been met with resistance and opposition, many today could not imagine campus without it.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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