Tallest Educational Building in the Western Hemisphere?!
As a teacher in hot pursuit of the most stupendous and famous buildings around the globe, I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know of the existence of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s 42-story “Cathedral of Learning” until a friend led me there last summer.
Just HOW BIG is the Cathedral of Learning?
This 535-foot-tall Gothic skyscraper was completed by the University of Pittsburgh (“Pitt”) in 1937, and is currently the fourth tallest educational building in the WORLD — and the tallest in the entire Western Hemisphere. The Cathedral of Learning is a masterpiece of imagination and community fundraising!
The tower of the Cathedral of Learning contains over 2,000 rooms and windows in total, and the first floor “Commons Room” lobby (pictured in the first photo and below) sprawls four stories up, and half an acre across. Can you imagine having such a grand hall to do your studying?
Nationality Rooms at Pitt
The Cathedral of Learning is an active university building with real classrooms, but with a twist: for over 30 of those classrooms, the design represents different nationalities. You can tour many of them just by walking in off the street — as long as a class isn’t in session inside.
On the official page for the Pitt Nationality Rooms, videos explain the meticulous level of detail and thought that went into each classroom at the Cathedral of Learning. For example, in the Armenian Room pictured below, the lights are styled to mirror 10th century oil lamps used in monasteries in Armenia.
Pitt launched its Nationality Rooms program in 1926 to involve the diverse ethnic communities of Pittsburgh in the university’s new building, and to add global depth to the ambitious architectural endeavor underway with the Cathedral of Learning.
How Are Nationality Rooms Funded?
The funding structure for each Nationality Room is fascinating. A committee of representatives for the nationality is responsible for the fundraising and organization of design, materials, and labor, while Pitt provides the space and upkeep of the room. Some rooms cost over half a million dollars to create!
As my friend, Jeremy, the Pittsburgh expert (who kindly gave us this Cathedral of Learning tour) points out, money can’t always buy your buns happiness. Some of the more gorgeous rooms’ chairs look like they’d be less than comfortable to sit in for class…
Rules for Nationality Room Design
Interestingly, Nationality Rooms in the Cathedral of Learning are not allowed to be political, and must as authentically as possible represent the historic cultural history of a nation before 1787 (when Pitt was founded). New Nationality Rooms are being constantly proposed and funded. Which culture will be next?
Touring the Nationality Rooms
The Cathedral of Learning is one of the best FREE or low-cost tourist attractions in Pittsburgh — or the country for that matter. The third floor Nationality Rooms are open to the public (as long as you’re not barging into an active class).
Yes, there are parts of the building you need to pay a small amount or arrange to see (click for official details here about the $4 audio guide or group tours), but for the most part, you can just mosey in off the street and enjoy many of the building’s highlights — Nationality Rooms and beyond — at zero cost.
Views from the Top of the Tower
Another no-cost delight of the tower is the view from the top. Take the elevator to the 36th floor — the highest visitors are allowed in the Cathedral of Learning — to stroll around the Honors College and ogle Pittsburgh from hundreds of feet up, framed by Gothic-style stone windows.
Now, looking down from any high building always swings back into mind my moment in the United Arab Emirates tower called the Burj Khalifa — the tallest building in the world — gazing 1,825 feet down to Dubai far below! (Click through to see my photos from that wild day.) The Cathedral of Learning felt a lot less wind-whipped than that.
Is the Nickname “Cathy” Cool?
As you may have noticed, it becomes quite a mouthful to say “The Cathedral of Learning” repeatedly… so as cool college kids are wont to do, some Pitt citizens began to refer to the tower as “Cathy.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that this has caused a stir, as the stately building doesn’t exactly mix with such a relaxed moniker. What do you think of the nickname?
Another Gothic Revival Building:
Speaking of the stateliness of the building, standing there in that cavernous lobby made me zoom mentally to a sister to the Cathedral of Learning’s architecture: St. John the Divine in New York City. (Click through to see the similarity in shape and size.)
Both buildings are Gothic Revival style and feature soaring stone arches of limestone. Both make a gal feel mighty small — yet soooo satisfied, being amid the awe-inspiring, artistic majesty!
Other Pittsburgh Attractions:
Enjoyed the Cathedral of Learning, and looking for other great activities around Pittsburgh? Try these!
- Randyland: a wildly colorful courtyard (Free!)
- Bicycle Heaven: Possibly the largest collection of vintage bikes in the world?! (Free!)
- Phipps Conservatory: Botanical Gardens with Phenomenal Flower Displays
Laurel Highlands Sights Near Pittsburgh
A short drive from PGH and the Cathedral of Learning sits the tranquil Laurel Highlands region of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Here are some of the sights offered:
- Fallingwater: Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece of architecture
- Latrobe, PA: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in real life!
- Hiking at Laurel Caverns, Ohiopyle, and Linn Runn.
- The Westmoreland Museum of American Art
- The delightful town of Ligonier, PA
- Luxury cabins, this funny farm stand, great crafts, and a glass paperweight collection to inspire.
What Do YOU Think of Pitt’s Cathedral?
So what about you? Did you know this astounding structure existed? What are your favorite parts of the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh? Do share!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 3.7 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!