Preserving Pitt’s Crown Jewel

Issue Date: 
March 12, 2007

Pitt kicks off its 220th anniversary with $4.8 million exterior preservation of the Cathedral of Learning

The Cathedral of Learning, the unique and architecturally stunning landmark that has come to symbolize the University of Pittsburgh in the minds of people around the world, will undergo a $4.8 million exterior preservation.

Work on the project is scheduled to begin today.

In announcing the Cathedral renovation on Feb. 28, the 220th anniversary of Pitt’s founding, Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said, “With this undertaking, the University of Pittsburgh is moving decisively to meet its responsibility to preserve and enhance one of the most beautiful and distinctive urban campuses to be found anywhere, a campus filled with an invaluable and irreplaceable collection of architectural treasures. And the crown jewel in this collection is the Cathedral of Learning.

“For 70 years, the Cathedral has stood as a monument to higher education’s most noble aspirations—the pursuit of ever-higher levels of achievement and impact through education, research, and public service—an ambition embraced by the late Pitt Chancellor John Bowman, when he envisioned the Cathedral more than 80 years ago, and an ambition that continues to drive our University today,” Nordenberg said.

“In launching this important project, designed to preserve the Cathedral for future generations, we also reaffirm our gratitude and respect for the hard work, generous contributions, and very real sacrifices made by those who came before us,” the chancellor continued. “In supporting the construction of the Cathedral and the development of the Nationality Rooms that it houses, people of diverse backgrounds and heritages poured their hearts and their hard-earned money into a project they knew would outlive them and be a permanent source of inspiration, as well as education, for their children and their children’s children.”

This is the first large-scale exterior preservation project for the Cathedral since its completion in 1937. The Property and Facilities Committee of the Pitt Board of Trustees formally approved the project at its Feb. 28 meeting.
Planning for the project began in 2000. Inspections of the Cathedral’s exterior found cracked stones and mortar that was loose or missing in hundreds of locations, caused by expansion and contraction over time. In some cases, the cracks have allowed moisture to penetrate the walls, causing further deterioration.

The most visible aspect of the preservation project will be the cleaning of nearly 70 years of soot and grime from the 42-story, 535-foot Gothic Revival tower, but workers also will inspect the limestone façade for damaged stones, replacing or restoring them as necessary, as well as inspecting and replacing any missing or deteriorated mortar joints.

Some individual limestone panels also are cracked, particularly those along the parapets. In addition, some cracks exhibit evidence of metal staining, suggesting that fasteners buried in the masonry may be rusting. Corroded anchorage will be removed and replaced with stainless steel pins. All mortar, caulking, and replacement stones will be matched as closely as possible with the original colors and textures.

Large areas of the façade of the building are now covered with a residue of carbons, sulfur dioxides, and gypsum that traps moisture and will, over time, cause further deterioration of the stone, with traceries and fine detail most at risk.
The limestone will be prewashed with pressurized water; then, a media composed of 100-percent recycled micron powdered glass will be applied and rinsed off with pressurized water. The cleaning media, distributed by Quintek Corporation, is inert and nontoxic. The product has been successfully used in dozens of historic buildings, including Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey in Great Britain, the Kremlin in Russia, St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and a dozen castles and cathedrals in Germany.

Though the dust from the cleaning is inert and nontoxic, and most of it will diffuse into the atmosphere, visitors to the Cathedral will be protected from any errant dust by scaffolding.

Funded by the J. Paul Getty Trust, the University of Pittsburgh Civic Center Conservation Plan, which includes the Cathedral of Learning, was honored in October 2006 by AIA Pittsburgh, a chapter of the American Institute of Architects, with its Award of Excellence in the Architectural Open Plan Category. The jury remarked that the plan exhibited a “level of inquiry that rarely happens and even more rarely [is] implemented. Understanding the historical nature to that level of detail is admirable…the firm basically worked with the client to recognize the past, understand the maintenance and developed a plan that has a potential to be implemented. By being so thorough and pragmatic, they have created a very sustainable strategy by allowing this wonderful old campus to be maintained. It is a wonderful celebration of the art of building and construction craftsmanship.”

The project will be implemented by the Pittsburgh-based Cost Company, a leader in masonry preservation. Other local restoration projects by Cost have included the Federal Courthouse, Pitt’s Alumni Hall, Soldiers & Sailors National Military Museum & Memorial, Benedum Center, the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, Heinz Hall, and Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside. Cost will employ between 30 and 40 workers on this project, which is scheduled to be completed in September 2007.

The work schedule is being coordinated with the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to ensure the safety of a pair of peregrine falcons, Erie and Dorothy, that have made their home atop the Cathedral since 2002. Erie and Dorothy are expected to have fledglings in early spring, and the Cost crew will wait until late June, when the young birds have left the nest, before starting on the upper floors.

Knowing that this preservation work would need to be undertaken, the University has set aside reserve funds for this project. However, it is anticipated that a significant portion of the expense will be met by funds donated to the University specifically for this purpose through a Cathedral Preservation Society fundraising initiative, which will be part of the University’s ongoing $2 billion capital campaign.

The society’s first two donors were Ellen and Loren Roth, who had anticipated that a project of this type would need to be undertaken and made their contribution a number of years ago. Ellen Roth is the principal of Getting to the Point, Inc., and Loren Roth is associate senior vice chancellor for health sciences and professor of health policy and management at Pitt and senior vice president and chief medical officer for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The Cathedral preservation project is part of the University’s continuing initiative to preserve and enhance its architectural treasures. Other recent work includes the renovation of the Honors College and the construction of the McCarl Center in the Cathedral; interior renovation of the Stephen Foster Memorial; the conversion of the Masonic Temple into Pitt’s Alumni Hall, which won the City of Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission Preservation Award of Merit and the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation Award of Merit, among other awards; and the transformation of Heinz Chapel into a handicapped-accessible facility, a project that received the City of Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission award.