The Cathedral of Learning: A History

Issue Date: 
March 12, 2007

The Cathedral of Learning owes its existence to the vision and persistence of John Gabbert Bowman, Pitt’s chancellor from 1921 to 1945.

“They shall find wisdom here and faith—in steel and stone, in character and thought—they shall find beauty, adventure, and moments of high victory,” Bowman said of the Oakland skyscraper.

Designed by Philadelphia architect Charles Zeller Klauder, the Cathedral was the world’s tallest educational building at the time it was built. Today, it is surpassed only by the main tower of Russia’s Moscow State University. Originally planning a 52-story structure, Klauder went through dozens of designs before finally settling on the 40-story design that Bowman approved.

The Cathedral site, part of a 14-acre parcel of land known as Frick Acres, was donated to the University by Andrew W. Mellon and his brother, Richard B. B. Mellon. The site previously was the location of the mansion of James K. Moorhead, a U.S. Congressman and president of the Atlantic & Ohio Telegraph Co., predecessor to Western Union Telegraph Co.

According to Robert C. Alberts’ Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh, 1787-1987, (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986), the name Cathedral of Learning is thought to have been first used by Bowman at an announcement dinner on Nov. 6, 1924. Though Bowman is said to have disliked the name, he recognized its publicity value, especially in light of the University’s impending $10 million public fundraising campaign to finance the building’s construction.

That campaign has been recognized as one of the first modern fundraising drives, involving Pittsburgh businesses, philanthropic organizations, and individuals. More than 97,000 schoolchildren each contributed a dime in exchange for a certificate testifying that they were “Builders of the Cathedral of Learning.”

Today, surviving “builders” remain loyal to Pitt.

Alice Sapienza Donnelly recalls that she was about 7 or 8 years old when her father gave her a dime to contribute. “I fingered that dime and kept thinking about buying candy, but I ended up giving it to Pitt.” Later, she said her father took her on the 76 Hamilton bus to see “her” brick. “I asked him, in Italian, ‘Papa, which one is my brick?’ and he told me ‘The one at the very top.’”

Donnelly, who will turn 87 in August, earned her B.A. degree in English literature in 1974 and her M.A. degree in communication in 1983, both at Pitt; she taught evening courses in public speaking and parliamentary rhetoric at the University for 28 years.

Robert Lavelle, executive vice president of Dwelling House Savings and Loan, was a student at Lincoln Elementary School in East Liberty when “they showed us a picture of this beautiful edifice that was going to be built on campus.”

The name, the Cathedral of Learning, was beginning to take hold for the building, but young Lavelle, whose father was a preacher, questioned the nomenclature. “If it’s a cathedral, why doesn’t it have a steeple?” he asked. The answer, his teachers told him, was that “there is no peak to learning…it’s a lifelong process, and that’s why the architects had to leave the top open.”

Lavelle, too, went on to graduate from the University, though his matriculation was interrupted by a stint in the U.S. Army. Lavelle earned his bachelor’s degree in 1951 in Pitt’s College of Business Administration and his Master of Letters degree in 1954 in Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business. The University has established the Robert R. Lavelle Business Scholarship in his honor in the College of Business Administration.

The Cathedral was designated a National Landmark by the National Park Service on Nov. 3, 1975, and designated by the Pittsburgh City Council as a Historic Structure on Feb. 22, 1977.

Cathedral Timeline
By Linda K. Schmitmeyer

March 1921—Two months after John G. Bowman becomes Pitt’s chancellor, he writes of envisioning a “high building, a tower—a tower singing upward that would tell the epic story of Pittsburgh.”

Nov. 6, 1924—At a dinner announcing plans for a new academic building to be erected on Frick Acres, a rectangular plot of land between Fifth and Forbes avenues and a block south of Pitt’s campus, Bowman for the first time refers to the new building as “a cathedral of learning.”

1925—Bowman initiates fundraising efforts for the new building. Through the years, more than 20,000 men and women contribute. In addition, the “Buy a Brick” aspect of the campaign, which encourages school-age children to become members of a “fellowship of builders,” results in 97,000 certificates of membership being issued.

July 25, 1926—After years of discussion, the University’s Board of Trustees approves a cathedral plan by architect Charles Z. Klauder of Philadelphia.

1926—The Nationality Rooms Program, begun under the direction of Ruth Crawford Mitchell, is launched.

Sept. 27, 1926—Ground is broken at the Cathedral site and excavation begins.

Oct. 21, 1929—Eight days before the U.S. stock market crashes, the last girder of the Cathedral is riveted into place.

Feb. 28, 1931—The first class—in engineering drafting—is held in the Cathedral.

Dec. 19, 1932—A fire involving seven stories of the interior causes $5,000 in damage.

October 1934—The last exterior stones are put into place.

May 1, 1936—The School of Law moves its offices into the Cathedral.

June 4, 1937—Bowman lays the cornerstone in the Commons Room. The inscribed stone, a gift from the Class of 1937, holds documents with signatures from the graduating class and the faculty, a University catalogue, copies of The Owl yearbook and The Pitt News, photographs of the construction, and the names of those who gave money to build the Cathedral.

March-April 1938— Auleen M. Jamison, director of the Pitt Women’s Student Health Service, conducts a massive tuberculin test of students in its 8th-floor offices.

July 8, 1938—The German, Russian, Scottish, and Swedish Nationality Rooms are presented to the University by their sponsoring committees; the Early American Room, also presented in 1938, was commissioned by a descendant of a 17th-century English sea captain.

March 7, 1939—Jan Masaryk, son of Czech President Thomas Masaryk and one-time Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, speaks at the dedication of the Czechoslovak Room.

1940—The 18-foot ornamental gates designed by master artist-blacksmith Samuel Yellin are installed in the Commons Room. Yellin’s artwork also can be found in the Darlington Memorial Library (6th floor), the Chancellor’s office (1st floor), and a number of Nationality Rooms.

Nov. 7, 1941—Queen Frederika of Greece visits during the dedication of the Greek Nationality Room.

March 16, 1943—Metropolitan Opera soprano Stella Roman sings Romanian folk songs at the dedication of the Romanian Room.

1943-1944—Air Cadet Training Program and other military training are headquartered in the Cathedral.

1945—In honor of the 50th anniversary of women at Pitt, students and alumnae help raise money to finish the 12th floor, which includes a kitchen and the Braun Room, where the Dean of Women meets and hosts teas.

1955—Two adjoining rooms—the Ballroom and the Oval Room—from the 1830s Croghan Mansion in Stanton Heights are installed in the Cathedral.

March 8, 1956—On the 30th anniversary of the groundbreaking, the Cathedral is dedicated to Chancellor Emeritus and President Honorarius John G. Bowman.

February 1957—Thirty teams are stationed in the Commons Room to inoculate school children and adults with the Salk polio vaccine developed at Pitt. By 1961, no new cases of polio were reported in Pittsburgh.

Sept. 24, 1959—Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and diplomat André Gromyko tour the Nationality Rooms, following lunch with then-Pitt Chancellor Edward Litchfield.

November 1975—Author Alex Haley speaks at a fundraising event of the African Heritage Room sponsoring committee.

Nov. 3, 1975—The National Park Service designates the Cathedral, the Commons Room, and the Nationality Rooms as National Landmarks.

Feb. 22, 1977—The Cathedral is designated a Historic Structure by the Pittsburgh City Council.

November 1991—An ATM (MAC) machine is installed in the Cathedral.

September 1993—The movie Roommates, starring Peter Falk and Ellen Burstyn, is filmed in the Cathedral.

Jan. 9, 2000—The Indian Nationality Classroom is dedicated, bringing to 26 the total number of Nationality Rooms. In addition to those presented in 1938, the other Nationality Classrooms and their years of dedication or presentation to the University are as follows: Czechoslovak (1939), Yugoslav (1939), Chinese (1939), Hungarian (1939), Polish (1940), Lithuanian (1940), Syria-Lebanon, (1941), Greek (1941), French (1943), Romanian (1943), Norwegian, (1948), Italian (1949), English (1952), Irish (1957), Israel Heritage, (1987), Armenian (1988), African Heritage (1989) Ukrainian (1990) Austrian (1996), and Japanese (1999). A number of rooms are in the planning phase; they are the Danish, Finnish, Latin American/Caribbean, Philippine, Swiss, Thai, Turkish, and Welsh rooms.

2002—Erie and Dorothy, two peregrine falcons, nest on a ledge outside the 40th floor of the Cathedral; the first successful hatching of the endangered species occurs in the spring. They have returned to the nesting place each year since.

2002—Wireless communications service is installed in the first Cathedral offices.

Oct. 24, 2003—His Royal Highness Prince Andrew, The Duke of York, tours the English Nationality Room during his campus visit to declare Pitt a Marshall Center of Excellence.

April 10, 2005—To mark the 50th anniversary of the announcement that the Salk polio vaccine developed at Pitt was “safe, effective, and potent,” the University holds a community-wide tribute to Pittsburgh’s own polio pioneers in the Commons Room that includes talks by, among others, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg; biomedical researcher Peter L. Salk (Jonas Salk’s eldest son); and film/TV/stage star Mickey Rooney, one of the first celebrity March of Dimes fundraising volunteers.

Feb. 28, 2007—The University announces a preservation plan for the exterior of the Cathedral.