The Cathedral of Learning

You have to look up. Photo courtesy @faithantion
You have to look up. Photo courtesy @faithantion

Long before I heard of Thursday Doors, I wanted to do a post about this magnificent building. Then, I felt a strong urge to include the Cathedral in a few Thursday Doors posts. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the right photos for either post, so I kept putting it off until the next trip to Pittsburgh. Faith and I visited in November, Faith brought her camera, mission accomplished. So for today, a little background on the Cathedral and how it relates to me. Then, on Thursday, a few doors.

I attended the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Business in 1976-77. I’ve written about that education before. The only important thing today is that The Graduate School of Business was spread across 5-6 floors of the Cathedral of Learning.

They broke ground for the Cathedral in 1926, and it was dedicated in 1937, although classes were being held as early as 1931. It’s a steel frame building, with a limestone skin in a gothic style. It’s located in the heart of the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. It rises 44 floors, high enough to be seen from PNC Park or Heinz Field. It has held and lost records for height, in the city and around the world. Today, it remains the tallest educational building in the Western hemisphere. A little family tidbit, my great-grandfather was a foreman during construction.

The business classrooms were nothing special. Being 18-24 stories up in the air was a source of distraction, especially for someone whose mind was known to wander. It was a larger distraction during accounting and finance classes, when my mind couldn’t wander fast or far enough away from debits and credits, P&Ls and Balance Sheets and losing points for being willing to accept “close enough” as an answer on my homework. While the professor droned on about inventory and accruals and LIFO and FIFO, I found the Pittsburgh skyline compelling.

The real joy of the Cathedral was found between classes. I was a commuter student, so when I had an hour or two between classes, I had to find a place to study on campus. I didn’t have to go far.

The first three floors of the Cathedral of Learning are built around The Commons. The Commons has a medieval feel. Sitting there is like going back in time. Unlike the other areas of the building, the Commons is actually a gothic room. The large true arches channel their weight through the stone columns. There are desks and tables on the main floor of the Commons and tucked into every nook and cranny. There are fireplaces which are often in use. In addition, if the Commons is crowded, the second and third floor have study carrels along the wall overlooking the main floor.

Keep in mind, 1976 was before personal computers, before laptops and way before smart phones. Studying involved a book, a notebook and a pen. Studying also required a brain, an attention span and the ability to focus, which was often lacking as I sat in those carrels.

The Cathedral of Learning is the center of Pitt’s urban campus. On the days that I had large breaks between classes, there were many wonderful attractions within Walking distance. Directly across the Forbes Avenue from the large quad on which the Cathedral stands, are the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History. With free admission for students, this was another place to spend some down time. A short walk down Forbes Ave. (toward Pittsburgh) is The Original Hot Dog Shop. ‘The O’, is an iconic Oakland restaurant. When I was there, it was always crowded, sometimes with a line out the door. As soon as you got inside, someone would ask for your order. By the time you got to the counter, they handed you your food.

The other significant building near the Cathedral is Heinz Chapel, a non-denominational chapel centered on the same quad as the Cathedral. Dedicated in 1938, Heinz Chapel was a gift from the H.J. Heinz family to the University of Pittsburgh.

One of the cool features of the Cathedral is the collection of Nationality Rooms on the first and third floor. These rooms were designed, constructed and dedicated to the various ethnic groups that played an important role in the history of Western Pennsylvania.

Building these rooms was a time consuming and expensive undertaking, especially considering that the original set of rooms was built during the Depression and the early years of World War II. A virtual tour of these rooms is available online. I will be providing one here, over the course of several posts, beginning in January.

I know, I’ve teased you a lot today, but unless I tried to make you read 4,000 – 6,000 words, I couldn’t work everything into one post. We’ll return to campus and Cathy (that was our nickname for the Cathedral) on Thursday. Today’s gallery should give you a feel for what it was like to be a student in this magnificent building.

65 thoughts on “The Cathedral of Learning

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    1. Thanks Judy. As a family, we’ve always had a connection with the building. I toured the Nationality Rooms as a child, when there were far less than there are today. I felt very fortunate to return there as a student.


  1. Wowzer, Dan!! This is true delight! I see why you wanted to feature this building … it is a piece of medieval-inspired brilliance. It must have been wonderful to study in a place like this.
    I love the little nooks and crannies, the arches, the fireplaces … damn, I love all of it!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a magnificent building Dan. I have to say that Gothic Architecture has always been impressive and a favourite for me. There’s something beautifully transcendent and boundless about its design. I can see why you say the place has a Medieval look about it. Those fireplaces look grand and inspiring and remind me of some of the fireplaces I’ve seen in castles around here. Great post and look forward to the next one on the building.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Don. Just walking through the Commons in the morning was inspiring. Studying in that space was really a special treat. It’s hard to describe, and I’m not sure the photos do justice, but they come close.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very European (or Harry Potterish). What an amazing place to study and the location sounds perfect for trying to distract you from those studies! Book, notebook, and pen. Whaaaaat? :-) Thanks for the tour of this magnificent building. I’ll look forward to what you reveal in the next one.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Lois. I tasked Faith with trying to capture the feel of that space. Not an easy task, but I really do like that photo. The family connection is neat. I gave a large photo of the Cathedral to my mom a few years ago as a house-warming gift for her new apartment.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, that’s a gorgeous building! The architecture is phenomenal, especially the arches (Faith did an excellent job capturing them). I can understand why you liked to study there and why you might get lost in thought. The medieval type setting is so cool, except they are missing the Knights of the Round Table and a few fair maidens.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That gothic interior is magnificent, Dan. I’ve always been a big fan of that style. I would love a space like that to work in. All those small, quiet corners… wonderful!

    But you say 4,000-6,000 words like it’s a bad thing! Are you hinting to me that 90% of my blog posts are just too long? ;P #Kidding

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Wendy, and no, I wasn’t implying that your posts are too long. You’re also not putting one out there four times a week. The small nooks and crannies are wonderful places to work.


  6. There just aren’t enough WOWs to do justice to this building! What a spot for a SCA event (Society for Creative Anachronism)! Does anyone ever sit in that Daddy Chair against the one pillar? I would tell you a linguistic story about arches, but it has a Naughty Word in it, so I’ll spare your blushes. :D

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha – Thanks Marian. I sat in one of those chairs while we waited for one of the tour groups to pass by. I had a keen urge to pas judgement on something. There is a secret regarding those arches, that I will reveal on Thursday – don’t touch that dial.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, don’t start on the elevators. In the 70s, they were so slow, that we ran 20+ flights of stairs down when heading out to lunch. They have recently been updated to “smarter” elevators, which, from what I’ve read, work very well.

      I would imagine that the original elevators probably worked well, too, as they were operated by humans. It wasn’t until they installed the first “automatic” elevators that they probably started to be a problem – just a guess, but they had plenty of capacity, they were just never where they needed to be.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Have you seen “double-deck” elevators? Each elevator has two cars, one stacked on top the other. The bottom serves even numbered floors, the top odd numbered floors. On the ground floor there is an escalator to access the odd floors. It works really well during high volume times, since the elevator only makes half the stops.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I haven’t seen one, but here in CT, the land of Otis and all things up and down, we read a lot about elevator tech in our local paper. Frankly, I’d always take a “get me close” option and then walk. 1-3 flights of stairs is still easy for me, but 22 is a stretch.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Ooh, that’s a beautiful, magical place. I very much long to seclude myself in that little room… Good job with the photos, and Faith’s capture of the arches is amazing. What a share, Dan! :)

    LIFO and FIFO sound like a pair of cute dogs ;)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Joey. Faith did a nice job on those photos. I’ll take credit for thinking to ask her. Only an accountant would name their dogs LIFO and FIFO – I’m imagining little, yappy and very annoying dogs.


    1. Thanks Deborah. I saw your comments on the photos. I can only comment to those when I get back to my laptop, but I really appreciate your taking the time to make those comments. I try to keep the photos relevant to the topic and I work pretty hard to choose the ones that add to the story. I really feel good when people tell me that it works. The Cathedral is such a complex asset to the university and the city, but its value to the students is often understated. This was a wonderful place to study and learn.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha – I just always figure that you kids had all that new-fangled stuff to work with ;)

      That was a stark contrast to the people there today. Still studying, still with books open, but connected in ways we never dreamed would be possible.


  8. Oh my gosh. It seems like you were studying at Hogwarts with Harry Potter. I have this in my mind, and someday I’m going to write about my college with interior pictures. The building is very ancient, but not as large as this one. This one is of gigantic proportions I must say.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Looking forward to getting to know more about Cathy – from your and Faith’s view and lens!
    I also love when writers add tidbits about scoioeconomic details because it all overlaps and should be considered – ;)
    Now I am off to check out Thursday Doors…

    Liked by 1 person

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