Remember Sesame Street? “♫One of these things is not like the others.” Well, that’s how my doors research went this week. Two buildings that I have long thought belonged together, are completely different things. Different, but interesting.
Once again, I am returning to the giant quadrangle of my graduate school alma mater. Next to the Cathedral of Learning, on the University of Pittsburgh campus, is another gothic stone building. It looks like an appendage of the Cathedral, but it’s totally separate. It is part of the university, it was built to resemble the cathedral and it was built at the same time, but it’s a separate building, with a unique purpose.
The building is the Stephen Collins Foster Memorial. It is a performing arts center and a museum. We will visit it and its doors on another Thursday.
Next to, well, across a small parking lot from the Stephen Foster Memorial is a log cabin. I always assumed it was there to represent “My Old Kentucky Home.” What did I know? It’s not like the log cabin is actually marked as to what it represents. It’s just sort of sitting there, and it’s closer to Stephen Foster’s place than anything else. Still, according to a university website:
“The log cabin near the Cathedral of Learning symbolizes Pitt’s origins as a frontier academy of higher learning. Estimated to date from the 1820s or 1830s, the cabin was reconstructed on campus for the University’s bicentennial in 1987.”
I grew up in the city, attended the school and have toured the campus numerous times, and I did not know about this cabin. The stories that I found contain more explanation as to why there is no explanation, than actual history. Here’s what I’ve been able to determine:
It is generally accepted that what is today the University of Pittsburgh began in the 1780s as the Pittsburgh Academy. The limited evidence that remains suggests that the academy began in a log cabin.
That makes sense. In the 1780’s most of Pittsburgh’s businesses, offices, homes and buildings were made from wood. Devastating fires in 1845 and 1849, destroyed most of downtown Pittsburgh, including the Pittsburgh Academy and, presumably, its records.
So, this is one of those bits of history that grew out of legend as much as fact. That’s OK. There is enough factual evidence that can be knitted together from a variety of sources to let historians agree that:
“It seems in the very least that it can be inferred that Pitt Academy had an early log building in its possession…”
How’s that for certainty?
In an attempt to mollify the naysayers in the larger audience, an article in Wikipedia offers this somewhat apologetic statement:
“Even if the history of the school starting in a log cabin is factually unclear, it has been a tradition told within the university for over 100 years and at least represents the era of Pitt’s founding, if not the actual 1st meeting in a log cabin to discuss the institution’s creation.”
Whether or not the school started in a building that kinda-sorta looked like this building is irrelevant for several reasons. First, we can’t prove it one way or another. Second, the school had to start somewhere, and wooden buildings were all the rage at the time. Third, this is an original, albeit refurbished, authentic log cabin that dates from closer to 1780 than 2017. Fourth and perhaps most important, the log cabin has doors.
This post, though merely skirting the boarder of historical accuracy, is most definitely part of Norm Frampton’s fun weekly series: Thursday Doors. If you want to know more about this series, perhaps even participate, Professor Frampton makes it easy. Take the school bus up to the Norm’s place. Look at his doors and then click the blue frog. Easy peasy.
Before showing you the gallery of original (mine) and borrowed photos, I’ll leave you with an update on the current grand purpose of this historic and symbolic building:
“For a time after its completion, through at least part of the 1990s, the log cabin served as a visitors’ information center. It is currently used by the Cathedral of Learning grounds maintenance staff to store salt for winter deicing.”
Maybe that explains the lack of signage.