When a lecture isn’t taking place inside, a classroom is one of my favorite hangouts on a college campus. After-hours at Sweet Briar, I’d go to my Arts Management seminar room on the second floor of the Anne Gary Pannell Center and enjoy its scenic view of the Quad. At Washington and Lee, you’d find me on the first floors of historic Washington Hall and of Newcomb Hall, where the windows were so tall and low to the ground that you could open them, take a deep breath of the boxwood-scented air and almost step right onto the Colonnade.
To me, it’s hard to top those two institutions of higher education in Virginia. Recently, however, I discovered some pretty strong rivals in some classrooms housed in the Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus.
In 1921, the University of Pittsburgh found itself short on space, so it commissioned the design of one tall building offering more than eight and a half million cubic feet of space that could be adapted for use as libraries, recitation rooms, laboratories and shops. The 42-story, 535-foot-tall building would provide better light, less noise and dust, better ventilation, and more cost-efficient heating. It would also save time for students and faculty, eliminating the need for them to travel from one part of the campus to another. Finally, its sheer size would project an impressive image of the institution’s mission.
In 1924, tens of thousands of Pittsburgh’s men, women and children contributed to a fundraising campaign for the building. In 1926, ground was broken for a Late Gothic Revival structure that would be both practical and beautiful to behold. The first class was held in the building in 1931, its exterior was finished in 1934, and it was formally dedicated in June 1937. Known as the Cathedral of Learning, this dramatic landmark of the Pittsburgh skyline is the tallest educational building in the Western hemisphere and the second tallest university building in the world.
Soon after entering the Cathedral of Learning, we beheld the Commons Room. This four-story, 52-foot-tall, vaulted Gothic study and event hall is 100 feet wide and 200 feet long. Images of native plants are carved into the stone. The wrought iron in the room, including the large gates leading to the elevators, was designed by Samuel Yellin, the master blacksmith and artisan.
As impressive as this space is, the main attractions of the Cathedral of Learning are its 29 Nationality Rooms, located on the first and third floors of the building. Donated by members of the Pittsburgh community and designed by natives of the countries they represent, these functioning classrooms reflect the architectural and design styles of different nations and ethnic groups that influenced Pittsburgh’s growth. They are designed to recreate cultural periods prior to 1787, the year the university was founded. Carved stone and wood, stained glass, hand-painted murals, needlework, and authentic period furnishings and decorative arts adorn each room. Blackboards and white screens are cleverly disguised behind works of art.
You can take a guided tour with a student, or you can look at unoccupied rooms on your own. Lifting the toggle switch on the light panel of each room begins a recording that narrates design highlights.
Joined by several groups of fellow tourists, we looked through peepholes to see if a class was in session. Here are some highlights of what we saw in these unique seminar rooms.
The earliest rooms to be dedicated were the Scottish, Russian, German and Swedish Rooms in 1938. In the Scottish Nationality Room, the names of famous Scotsmen are hand-carved in ribbon bands on oak panels. Inscriptions above the doors are from The Brue, by 14th century Scottish poet John Barbour. Above the blackboard is a 16th century Scottish proverb, known as the Scottish Golden Rule. The room is also decorated with symbols of Scottish clans, the coats of arms of four Scottish universities, representations of the thistle, a copy of a portrait of Robert Burns, crewel-embroidered linen draperies, and lighting fixtures based on an iron coronet found at the Battle of Bannockburn. Student seats resemble a chair that belonged to John Knox.
The University of Heidelberg provided the inspiration for the German Nationality Room. To evoke the 16th century German Renaissance, the upper panels of the doors are decorated with wood inlaid scenes of the fountain of Rothenburg and Nuremberg’s central square. Names of famous German-speaking philosophers, poets, musicians, artists and scientists; images from German folklore tales; characters from German literature; quotations from Goethe and Schiller; and stained-glass depictions of characters in the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales also adorn the room.
The Swedish Nationality Room reflects the decorative charm of a peasant cottage. Hand-painted murals on the rear wall depict the Three Wise Men in search of the Christ Child, as well as St. Catherine, Sweden’s patron saint. The ceiling is decorated with floral designs and depictions of the Archangel Gabriel, Justice, Knowledge and Judgment. The painted entrance door and red brick floor set in a herringbone pattern are examples of traditional Swedish decorative techniques.Stepping inside the Norwegian Nationality Room was like entering another cozy cottage. Spruce paneling, sloped ceilings, a fireplace with birch logs, a grandfather clock, and lighting fixtures with tulip cutouts are some of the room’s design elements. A replica of a handwoven tapestry in the Lillehammer Folk Museum depicts the biblical parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins. The blackboard is concealed with doors painted with elaborating rosemaling designs, similar to those that would conceal a bed in a traditional Norwegian home. The professor’s oak chair back is carved with a Viking design of intertwining dragons, while carvings of fierce beasts decorate the armrests and leg posts.
In the English Nationality Room, students sit on oak benches and are surrounded by linenfold paneling, a fireplace bearing Queen Victoria’s monogram and stone brackets carved with Tudor roses, all original material salvaged from London’s House of Commons after it was destroyed by bombs in 1941. The room also includes a brick from Number 10 Downing Street and a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard II, carved in oak above the fireplace.
“Ancient Erin” or Irish Romanesque architecture is the style of the Irish Nationality Room. The room is designed to reflect an oratory, a small stone chapel found on the west coast of Ireland. Stone carvings of foliage, wolfhounds and stylized cat masks frame the blackboard, while stained glass windows bear medallions depicting Sts. Finnian, Columkille and Carthagh, famous teachers at three of Ireland’s oldest centers of learning. The oak furniture carvings and design elements of a wrought iron stand derive from the Book of Kells. Irish wolfhound heads carved on the chair posts guard against evil spirits. The cornerstone reads in Gaelic, “For the Glory of God and the Honor of Ireland.”
The elegant 18th century Baroque period is beautifully represented in the Austrian Nationality Room. Based on decorative elements from the Haydnsaal in Schloss Esterhazy at Eisenstadt, the room features ceiling murals depicting scenes from Roman mythology and a wood parquet floor in a sunburst design. The lacquered and gilded maple table and upholstered red damask chairs are based on the imperial dining furniture in Vienna’s Hofburg. Walls are trimmed with 23-carat gold leaf and are decorated with floral designs, red damask and mirrors. Crystal chandeliers are similar to those in Vienna’s Schoenbrunn Palace.
In the Ukrainian Nationality Room, a pich, or warming stove, is constructed from handmade tiles depicting holiday celebrations and folklore. Elaborate carvings on the doorway reflect an old Ukrainian proverb, “When a guest enters the house, God enters the home.” The trapezoidal door is decorated with motifs of water, wheat and sunflowers. A shelf above the door displays ceramics decorated with regional patterns. Roosters, symbolizing the sunrise, perch on each chandelier.
The newest rooms are the Turkish and Swiss Nationality Rooms, both dedicated in 2012. The Turkish Nationality Room is based on the main room of a typical Turkish house with an outer gallery and a side entrance area called an iwan. Seating around the perimeter of the room suggests that all occupants are equals. Hardwood seats mimic divan-style seating with back panels that function as writing tablets which form a “parted curtain” motif when they are retracted. The ceiling features intricate inlaid wooden geometric patterns, a painted mural depicts a panoramic view of Istanbul, and stained glass windows are in the shape of tulips.
The Swiss Nationality Room is modeled after a late-Medieval communal room from Fraumünster Abbey, on display at Zurich’s Landesmuseum. The 26 “stabellen” style chairs bear the coats of arms of the Swiss Confederation’s cantons. Ceiling beams are carved with motifs from nature and agriculture. The tile oven, or kachelofen, is decorated with Swiss figures, animals and colors and recreates a 1640s design displayed at Schloss Wülflingen in Winterthur, Switzerland. The lectern displays the Swiss Cross and is modeled on a 17th-century schoolmaster’s desk.
For more information about the Cathedral of Learning, read The Cathedral of Learning, 1921-1937, by Agnes Lynch Starrett; The Cathedral of Learning: Concept, Design, Construction, by Mark M. Brown; and The Nationality Rooms, by E. Maxine Bruhns.