Lions and Dragons and Hogwarts, Oh Yes! Ryan Houghtaling, 10, Has Cathedral of Learning Standing Tall in Cleveland and Beyond

Issue Date: 
March 29, 2010

Ryan HoughtalingRyan Houghtaling

Finally, over the tops of the trees,  I see the Cathedral of Learning! I’ve been flying over rivers and valleys for days now, searching for my way back to Pittsburgh. I remember the strong winds pushing me away from Dorothy in the middle of migration. I remember her crying, “Erie, Erie, don’t leave me!” I remember losing my visibility and falling, falling, falling.
—Excerpt from The Falcon’s Eyes, essay by Ryan Houghtaling, age 10

Replicas of several architectural masterpieces made an impressive display recently in a suburban Cleveland elementary school classroom: There stood England’s Tower Bridge, France’s Pont du Gard, Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa—and the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.

The to-scale (1 inch=10 feet), Styrofoam model of the Oakland landmark—the idea and vision of John G. Bowman, Pitt’s chancellor from 1921 to 1945—stood proudly among its fellow internationally famous architectural monuments, evoking considerable fascination from the classmates of its creator, fifth-grader Ryan Houghtaling.

“My classmates all loved it, and many [of them] thought it was one of the best projects, even though they had never heard of it. Many of them want to come visit [the Cathedral], and my teacher does, too,” Houghtaling said enthusiastically during a phone interview.

The Styrofoam Cathedral stemmed from a fifth-grade independent study project that students were assigned in January at Washington Elementary School in Eastlake, Ohio. Houghtaling and his classmates each had to choose a famous structure and research its architecture, history, design, planning, and construction. The students presented their research in class earlier this month.

Houghtaling said he was torn between choosing the Cathedral of Learning or Rome’s Pantheon. The Cathedral won, aided in part by a visit that he, his parents, and younger brother Zachary, made last summer to the Cathedral of Learning and its 27 Nationality Rooms.

What were the most impressive facets of the Cathedral for this curious and energetic 10-year-old? “I liked the Chinese Nationality Room because of the lions and the dragon on the ceiling. I liked the [Cathedral’s] Commons Room because it looked like Hogwarts [School of Witchcraft and Wizardry] from Harry Potter and was cool. And I liked all the wooden carvings and stone emblems above all the doors,” he explained.

Research for the six-week project included e-mail correspondence between Houghtaling’s mother Penny, and E. Maxine Bruhns, director of Pitt’s Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange Programs. (The younger Houghtaling was particularly fascinated by Bruhns’ claims that her grandmother’s ghost visits Room 328, the Early American Room. The ghost lore was a big hit with his classmates, as well.)

Houghtaling’s grandfather helped him build the replica of the Cathedral. Houghtaling also wrote a short story about the Cathedral from the viewpoint of Erie, a peregrine falcon that lived on the Gothic structure’s roof until he disappeared in 2007. In addition, Houghtaling wrote a short “debate” (To Build or Not to Build) between Bowman and Pitt alumnus Andrew W. Mellon (1855-1937), the Pittsburgh banker, philanthropist, and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury who donated the land on which the Cathedral sits.

When he isn’t delving into architecture and wealthy industrialists, Houghtaling loves to play outside, swim, do karate, and read. “Reading and writing are my favorite subjects, and I hope to be an author some day. I also may like to be an archaeologist,” he said.