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The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh: WOW!

The Cathedral of Learning
The unbelievable Cathedral of Learning lobby.

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.

The Turkish Room in the Cathedral of Learning.
The Turkish Room in the Cathedral of Learning.

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?

Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh
Looking down at the massive Commons Room.

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.

The Ukrainian Room in the Cathedral of Learning.
The Ukrainian Room has wonderful light.

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.

The Armenian Room in the Cathedral of Learning.
The Armenian Room was one of my favorites.

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.

The Austrian Room in the Cathedral of Learning.
The Austrian Room was one of the most sparkly.

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…

The Indian Room in the Cathedral of Learning.
The Indian Room has carved stone pillars.

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?

An ornate wooden door in the Armenian room.
The ornate wooden door in the Armenian room.

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.

The Korean Heritage Room.
The Korean Heritage Room.

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.

The giant windows at the top, looking down at Pittsburgh.
The giant windows at the top, staring down at Pittsburgh.

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.

The Swiss Room in the Cathedral of Learning.
The Swiss Room has honey-colored wood in neat rows.

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?

One of the upper balconies in the Cathedral of Learning.
One of the upper balconies of “Cathy.”

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!

Such amazing arches in the Cathedral of Learning.
Awesome arches in the Cathedral of Learning.

Other Pittsburgh Attractions:

Enjoyed the Cathedral of Learning, and looking for other great activities around Pittsburgh? Try these!

Another view of the Korean Heritage Room.
I love the details of the Korean Heritage Room.

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:

Windows at the upper floors of the Cathedral of Learning.
Windows at the upper floors give hugs to Pittsburgh.

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 grand door to walk in or out of the Cathedral.

Other Great Attractions in Pittsburgh, PA

The Steel City has so many wonderful things to do and see beyond the Cathedral of Learning! Here are some ideas.

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