This Week in Pittsburgh History: Pitt Commits to Building the Cathedral of Learning

It would be 11 years for this Pittsburgh landmark to go from groundbreaking to inauguration.


TThere was some skepticism when the Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, John Bowman, proposed the construction of the world’s tallest educational building between Fifth Avenue and Forbes Avenue in Oakland at the beginning of the 20th century. With classrooms overcrowded from the post-war registration boom, this week, 100 years ago, Bowman finally convinced the Board of Trustees to approve the construction of the 42-story skyscraper that would be dubbed the Cathedral of Learning. A public fundraising campaign totaling US $ 10 million was launched to finance the construction.

The general contractor Stone & Webster broke ground in 1926. The first course took place in the unfinished building in 1931, and after delays caused by the Great Depression, the neo-Gothic tower was inaugurated in 1937. Pitt proudly boasted the tallest educational building in the world – until Moscow State University surpassed it in 1953. (The claim was modified to the “highest educational building in the free world”.)


There are 2,000 rooms in the cathedral, but the most famous are the nationality rooms, classrooms that serve as mini-museums that represent cultures from around the world. The cathedral is also home to traditional classrooms, academic and administrative offices, libraries, computer rooms, a theater, a printing shop, and a food court.

In 1969, the Cathedral of Learning – affectionately known as Cathy by Pitt alum – was 37 years old and was showing its age. Decades of soot and other elements had darkened and eroded the Indiana limestone facade, creating a two-tone effect that ran up and down the landmark skyscraper. In 2007, the university spent $ 4.8 million washing away the soot, repairing mortar joints, and replacing rusty fasteners – all of which gave the building a whole new look.

The cathedral was designated a National Landmark by the National Park Service in 1975. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Learn more about the city’s past on The Odd, Mysterious & Fascinating History of Pittsburgh Facebook page.

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