Classrooms Like No Other

Pittsburgh Travel Blog

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            Growing up, Pittsburgh was the closest big city, and we would take advantage of the theater and museums from time to time.  Once in awhile, we drove past the Cathedral of Learning, the visual centerpoint of the University of Pittsburgh.  When I learned that the stone skyscraper housed unique classrooms designed in a variety of international styles, I decided I had to visit.  On Tuesday morning my dad and I set off.  We swung through a drive-through for lunch, drove alongside the Ohio River, passed the airport, and

headed through the Fort Pitt tunnel.

  Coming across the bridge, I had a quick glimpse of a stadium and science museum before turning to follow 376 until our exit at Forbes St.  The Cathedral waited directly in front of us as we curved off the exit although it was still quite a few blocks away.  We found parking in a lot across the corner from the building.  It was meter parking, 15 minutes for a quarter, only quarters accepted.

            Dad and I walked up the steps and through the revolving doors.  My eyes adjusted quickly to the darker space, and my mouth opened in awe.  Gothic style stone pillars supported vaulted ceilings three stories high.  Looking up, I noticed arched openings from the second and third floor hallways which peeked down into the commons area where we stood.

ceiling of Commons Area
 Little stone staircases curled up and away.  One alcove hid a sleeping student at a wooden desk.  Tall fireplaces added a medieval feel.

            We bought our tickets for the guided tour in the gift shop and then used one of the elevators to reach the third floor.  Because the Cathedral is over 40 stories tall, there are several elevators, but each has limited service (for example, skipping floors 4 through 13 or only stopping on the even-numbered levels).  The third floor contains the newer International Rooms (I believe they are all from the 1980’s or later).  While each room has an informational placard, visitors can also hit a silver toggle upon entering to start a narrated description.

            We first visited the Ukrainian room (dedicated June 1990).

  After walking through the trapezoidal doorframe, I first noticed the warm tones of the wood decorating the space.  The long table led the eye to the back of the room with a step up and a faux balcony.  A bas relief filled one of the walls, its design depicting important scenes and people from Ukrainian history.  Over the door was a shelf filled with seven plates decorated mainly with traditional floral patterns.  Two plates and another pottery piece completed a second lower shelf.  To the right of the door stood a tiled fireplace.  Green and red designs based on nature decorated the white tiles.

            A dragon carving stood guard over the door to the second room, the Welsh room.

Welsh room
  Dedicated just this past summer, it is the newest addition to the International rooms.  It was simple in design, molded after a church.  The bay window to the right crowned the blue pulpit with a halo of light.  Two sections of pews doubled as desks.  The dark chalkboard in the front was the only wall hanging.  The blue door in the front hid a closet, home to media equipment.  Besides green holly boughs for Christmas, the only other major decoration was a grandfather clock in the back.

            We identified the next room pretty easily; the Hebrew writing on the door gave it away as the Israel Heritage Room, dedicated November 1987.  Ten different sets of characters were carved into the lighter white oak door, one set for each of the Ten Commandments.

  The architecture of Galilean stone dwellings from early in the first millennium came alive inside the room.  However, I first noticed a little festive detail, a handful of blue and white dreidels sitting on a low grey stone shelf along with a menorah.  The 3000-pound stone frieze to the right showed grapes, pomegranates, and figs, reflections of the agricultural society.  The importance of farming was reinforced by a wall carving on the back wall; from an inscription in a 6th-century synagogue, the Hebrew words described the rules for growing fruits and vegetables during the Sabbatical year.  In front of the inscription were two rows of fake stone benches.  A different symbol decorated the back of each seat.  The empty space in front of the two rows provided for easy viewing of the floor mosaic, a reproduction of a design from the Beth Alpha synagogue.
African door
  Brown and black painted panels hide the chalkboard.  A glass case built into the far wall held another reproduction, this one of the Isaiah scroll found at the Quamran caves near the Dead Sea.

            The fourth room represented an entire continent: Africa.  Once again, the atmosphere began with the oroco-wood door with its representations of many older civilizations including Pharonic Egypt, Nubia, Benin, Kongo, and Kuba.  Dedicated in December 1989, the room was modeled after an Asante temple courtyard in Ghana.

African
  Thatch rooflines gave the impressions of being surrounded by buildings.  The white walls opened up the top half of the room.  A plaster border just beneath the rooflines depicted Africa’s contribution to the world in the areas of fine arts and scientific knowledge.  The two tiers of deep red seats grounded the space.  I found the curved stools in the middle of the room to be a great solution to sleepy students; they had no backs.  Although light flooded the room, the bay window had a circular screen for shading.  Keeping with the seasonal festivities, Kwanzaa decorations take over a corner seat in front of a bas relief.

            We only looked at the fifth room Early American for a minute since we could not enter.

Early American room
  The room reminded me of a number of colonial kitchens I have seen.  A long simple wooden table with plain benches took the center place.  Little lanterns hung from the ceiling, their illumination complimented by the natural light from three square windows.

            Room six took us half a world away to India and the ancient university of Nalanda.  The coarse brick walls contrasted with the smooth white columns.  Wrought iron grills filtered the light streaming in through the arched windows.  A map of the excavated ruins of Nalanda rested in front of three of the windows.

India
  A bronze reproduction of the charter for the care of the monks hung between sets of windows.  On the back wall to the right of the entrance white blocks formed two rows of niches for sculptures, three seated figures on top and three standing figures below.  A metal sculpture topped with a bull in front of this stupa wall was draped in a white garland with red flowers, one of many throughout the room.  To the left a corner niche held a replica of a column capital with a lion riding on the back of an elephant.  Looking towards the opposite corner on the right, I saw three beautiful panels done in bright water colors.  The pictures showed students, male and female, from all over Asia as well as Silabhadra, a monk-scholar of Nalanda in the 7th-century.  On the other side of the door, glass-covered display cases created more modern niches, holding a number of books including a Koran and a Holy Bible.
Armenian ceiling
  The seal of Nalanda University (a deer with a Sanskrit inscription) emblazoned the cherry wood of the chalkboard doors.

            Dedicated in August 1988, the Armenian room was the heaviest (22 tons) due to all of its stonework, inspired by the library at the Sanathin monastery.  However, the room did not feel at all oppressive.  The light color of the stone helped, but credit also went to the ceiling which opened up in steps to a faux skylight.  A Christmas tree with white crosses stood in front of an arched chalkboard.  To the right was an intricately-carved professor’s lectern.  Another cross was carved into the stone corner behind the tree.

  A third cross could be found on the white oak door along with a depiction of Mt. Ararat, the spiritual homeland of the Armenian people.  Natural images such as leaves and pinecones decorate the arch over the door.  I was most interested in the Armenian alphabet on the wall straight across from the door.  From 404 AD the 36 symbols—done in gold gilt—looked quite foreign.  The heritage wall named important Armenians from over 17 centuries.  A fragment from the original monastery physically connected the faraway location to the Three River city with the inscription: Sanathin X-XII century-Pittsburgh XX century.

            Actually constructed in Kyoto, the Japanese room felt subdued with its dark wood and thin paper coverings blocking any view of the outside.

Japan
  Bamboo rods formed the ceiling while a display case formed the corridor wall.  This room’s seasonal decoration was kadomatsu, an arrangement of tree sprigs placed by the gate of the home.  Pine, evergreen, or Japanese chestnut are all trees used for this New Year’s embellishment.

            The double-headed eagle looking to the east and the west overlooked the entrance to the last room on the third floor: Austria from the Baroque era.  One word to describe this room: opulent.  Two Lobmeyr crystal chandeliers with gold fixtures dropped down from the ceiling with its elaborate murals, smaller versions of ones at Haydn Hall in a castle near Vienna.

chandelier in Austrian room
  Gold appeared again on the red walls, painted in floral design.  Red damask upholstery continued the rich feel.  Mirrors reflected the elegance.  My dad enjoyed looking at a depiction showing the various branches of the Austrian royal family and its empires.  The Hapsburgs certainly used their children to create connections with royal families across Europe which made the inscription over the door very fitting: “Let others wage war—let you, fortunate Austria, marry!”  A creche in a glass case represented Christmas here.

            Also while up on the third floor, we peeked into the Frick Auditorium, definitely the largest lecture space on that level.

Christmas time
  Over half the classrooms on the third floor are still “normal” ones.  However, several more International rooms are being considered such as a Thai, Finnish, Philippine, or Turkish room.  We returned to the gift shop area to meet up with our tour group a few minutes before two o’clock.  While waiting, I admired the Christmas decorations.

            The first room on the tour was the Czechoslavak room dedicated in October 1939.  As we sat down, I noticed a large circular relief, resembling a huge coin with the side image of a bearded man.  Vicki soon explained that T. G. Masaryk was the President-Liberator of Czechoslavakia and the words around the relief—Pravda Vítězí—were the nation’s motto which focused on truth.

Czechoslavakian leader
  Paintings on the ceiling depicted other famous Czechoslavkians (although the region is now two countries Czech Republic and Slovakia, the room will keep its original name for two reasons: 1. the committee wanted to stay united as one ethnic group, and 2. the Cathedral’s International rooms have received National Historic Register status and cannot be changed).  These men included Waclaw, Komensky, and Moyzes.  Beyond the portraits the ceiling had paintings of Czechoslavkian flowers and leaves on the larchwood beams.  Thin red stems and outlined leaves pulled the natural theme down onto the light walls.  “Miraculous trees” with a variety of plants and animals together grew next to the bay window.  The nature theme continued with a Christmas tree and red apple ornaments among others.  One final note: heart cut-outs accented the backs of the student seats.

            Next we entered the Italian room where I immediately noticed brightly wrapped gifts on the fireplace mantel.

  The plaid wrapping on one box certainly contrasted with the austere tree and birds carved on the stone mantel.  The ceiling soon caught my attention.  Warm wood divided the dark green ceiling into squares.  A golden sun image grew out of the middle of each quad.  Chandeliers provided overhead light.  Names on the walls represented famous Italians included Columbus and Michelangelo.  A light frieze across the back of the room depicted a woman in a pale blue dress, chubby cherubs flying above her head.  Helene Piscopia was one of the first—if not the first—women to receive a high degree of education.  Each chair in the room also reflected higher levels of learning.  The backs of the chairs provided a record of Italy’s universities with a name and charter year of the school on each.
see the gingerbread men?
  The oldest was Bologna in 1088.  Other schools included Modena, Piacenza, Macerata, and Roma.

            Third room was the German room which took its design from an actual university room in Heidelberg.  The wall of stained glass windows captivated us as soon as we entered.  Vicki pointed out that the figures in the windows represented the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales including the Frog King and Hansel and Gretel.  Each rectangular picture was bordered by smaller circles.  The mythical concept continued in the wood piecings in each corner of the room with stories such as the Lorelei.

stained glass in Germany
  The door featured another piecing, this one of a castle with several towers.  Just as in the Italian room, names represent famous people such as Bach.  An interesting note, although an Austrian, Mozart’s name has a place on the darker wood.  (When they built the room, the committee did not know that one day there would be an Austrian room upstairs and they felt that Mozart was too important to the Germanic people to not be included.)  I loved the Christmas tree in this room with its happy gingerbread men and traditional white candles.

            Stained glass windows provided a focal point in the Hungarian room.  The five panels of windows began with the mythological story of two brothers.  Their father told them that a white stag would show them where to found a nation.

the white stag
  The middle three panels depict important events in Hungary’s history such as the gathering of nobles under one man and the opening of the first university.  The final stained glass window showed the story of János and Iluska, two lovers separated by her death.  János puts a rose in a lake which brings her back to life, and they live together happily.  After their actual deaths, they traveled the Milky War together.  The Christmas decorations—small tree, two wreaths, and cut-out Nativity scene—blocked the view of the windows just a little.  A translucent white angel topped the tree.  The ceiling received the same care as the windows.  Its designs—a pattern mainly of birds and flowers—mimicked those found on the hope chests of young Hungarian women.
  Vicki pointed out one panel, three down from the chalkboard wall and two over from the corridor wall.  One of the four blue birds was missing its spots.  The reason?  To show that only God is perfect.  The first two lines of Hungary’s national anthem ran a border along the ceiling line.

            Around the corner we entered the Polish room.  Once again, stained glass filled the window space.  The seals of Polish universities punctuated the small hexagons of glass.  The focus on Copernicus—a huge portrait of him across one of the walls—further promoted the concept of learning.

globe
  In the bay of the windows stood a globe, an enlarged reproduction of the first one to show North America as its own continent.  Over in the corner was the Christmas tree, topped with a star.  The room took inspiration from Italy for its ceiling design, once again done to make the foreign wife of an Italian noble more content.

            Next up was the smallest room on our tour, the Irish room with architecture based on a monastery.  An illuminated manuscript sat in the front of the room.  Stone blocks filled most of the wall space, ending in carved arches a few feet from the ceiling.  The point of each arch ended in animal head facing downward.

Irish wolfhound
  A green bough with red poinsettias topped each arch for a festive mood, and a green and red banner told part of the Nativity story in both English and Gaelic.  A hidden point of interest: behind one of the bricks were two handfuls of dirt, one from Northern Ireland and one from Southern Ireland.  The mixing of the earth symbolized the hope for peace between the two factions.  Two Irish wolfhound heads capped the backs of each chair.  Vicki stated that the tour guides decided the dogs were there to protect monks hard at work; if a demon approached from behind, the canines would bark and scare it off.

            While the grey stone of the Irish room was not dark, the Lithuanian room was decidedly brighter with its woven linen walls.

straw Christmas decorations
  The pattern almost seemed to move with its contrasting squares and subtle curves.  While most of the wood was a warm tone, some pieces had been painted black to mimic the bog wood used for decoration in this eastern European country.  No stained glass here with its emphasis on nature, but geometric window hangings represented the sun.  Straw ornaments provided the Christmas touch as did a small wreath above the chalkboard.  A little glass case held mother and son figurines.  At first glance they appeared to be spinning, but closer inspection revealed a book in the boy’s hands.  These two characters represented the secret education of Lithuania’s children in their own language and heritage after the nation’s absorption into the Soviet Union.  The large painting in the back of the room echoed that same determination.
  It showed a dark forest to represent the current times, but two kings in the foreground held a bubble that encased a shining city of the future.

            Our next room represented another country that had suffered underneath Communism following World War II: Romania.  The committee for the Romanian room suffered financially during the Great Depression.  Luckily for them, a World’s Fair featured a Romania House.  When demolition time arrived, the committee was able to purchase wrought iron gates, a beautiful mosaic, four icon paintings, decorative wooden slats, and marble flooring.  The gates now guard the windows (and frame a Christmas tree this time of year).  The mosaic fills in the back wall with its depiction of a Romanian ruler submitting to the church despite the persecution of family members.

ceiling
  The icon paintings add detail to the two chalkboards.  One icon of particular note shows the Virgin Mary following her death, a scene rarely portrayed.  The original purpose of the wooden slats is unknown, but they now serve as chair backs in the spacious classroom.

            A painted door led us into the ninth room, the Swedish room.  Its shape was inspired by a farmhouse, an architectural design with little foreign influence over the years.  200-year old bricks, whitewashed several times, formed the walls.  A open-hearth chimney in the middle of one wall hinted at the possibility of cooking.  Traditional paintings on the white ceiling featured blue and golden tones.

hearth
  The style continued on the back wall with a huge painting of a patron saint and the three wise men dressed in Swedish clothing.  However, this room also held mistakes to display the sole perfection of God.  For example, one wise man was riding in the wrong direction.  The angel Gabriel in the middle of the ceiling had two left feet.  Once again the window area provided space for a Christmas tree, garlands of Swedish flags draped over this one.

            The atmosphere shifted abruptly as we moved into the Chinese room.  Deeper tones of red and black dominated this décor.  Directly above the circular table, a gold dragon twisted, its five toes a mark of the emperor.

Emperor's dragon
  Gilded bats—a symbol of good luck—surrounded the dragon.  Shiny butterflies helped to support beams running just below the ceiling and bearing the names of prominent Chinese such as Li Po, the poet, and Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Chinese Republic.  A space on one of the beams remained empty, waiting for the name of a future great man or woman from China.  However, with the National Historic Register designation, the blank spot became permanent which just the guide, I liked.  The opening kept the possibility of future achievement forever.  One famous Chinese man received special commemoration; Confucius had an engraving in the stone on the wall to the left upon entering the room.  Hands folded, one over the other, he looks serenely into the distance.
good luck lion
  On the opposite wall wooden doors flanked the chalkboard.  Their eight symbols had legendary beginnings; as Buddha walked, they appeared in his footsteps.  A yin-yang in the grey stone beneath the chalkboard sat inside an octagonal carving.  A simple floral arrangement featuring red roses and tan bamboo perched on the windowsill.  Two small lions, bells around their necks, sat on either side of the stone doorway.  Vicki pointed out the feline’s heads, darkened from students rubbing them for good luck before exams.

            Classic Greek columns greeted us in the eleventh room.  Like the one in the Italian room, this ceiling also featured a square design.  Created by a father-son team over seven months, these quads had a blue background behind pointy golden suns.

  The pointed sun design continued on the backs of the chairs along with the names of famous Greek places (such as Sparta) or people (such as Aristotle).  The room was dedicated as World War II raged in Europe, and therefore the Greek architect had very limited communication with the outside world.  He managed to tune into BBC radio on the day planned for the dedication ceremony.  Since the broadcast was in English, the man understood only a few English words—University of Pittsburgh—but he knew that his room had been completed.

            We continued our tour in the Scottish room.  Four coats of arms—each from a Scottish university—shone in the glass windows.

Burns portrait over the fireplace
  Underneath the symbols four wreaths reminded visitors of the holiday season.  Plaid ribbons decorated the small Christmas trees.  National pride appeared over the fireplace with an oval portrait of Robert Burns, their most famous poet.  On the mantel stood bronze figurines of the freedom fighters William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.  Thistle carvings accented the ceiling as well as the dedication plaque from July 1938.  The names of famous Scots such as Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island) and Alexander Fleming (discoverer of penicillin) were integrated into the English pollard oak woodwork.  Other names found in the room included Barrie, Carlyle, Kevin, Watt, Knox, and Hume.  Modeled after a weapon closet, the large wooden cabinet in the back actually held a teapot once owned by Burns.
  The light fixtures, in the form of crowns, recalled the days when Scotland was its own nation.

            We then walked into the Yugoslav room with its intricate woodwork which under normal circumstances would have been created by penknife.  Because of the detail already carved into the wood, the room featured portraits of famous men rather than just their names.  As Vicki discussed the eight portraits, I noticed how several of the men had gained fame due to their contributions in the fields of math.  A number of them had also been clergy.  A delicate white lacework in the back deserved special note.  Over six months during wartime, two women had carefully made the piece, a copy of the church’s picture of the Madonna and child.

  Once completed, the lace pattern had been hung in place of the more valuable artwork which had then been hidden until safer days.  I liked the decorations on this room’s Christmas tree: hand-painted wooden hearts and pinecones.

            Next was the English room, the largest of the International Rooms.  The stained glass designs in these windows focused on important British cities or people.  Two large portraits in the back honored William Penn, founder of the state of Pennsylvania, and Andrew Mellon whose money had provided for much of the building of the Cathedral of Learning.  Four stone rosettes connected the room to England; their previous address had been the House of Commons in London.

  A lone brick underneath William Penn also hailed from across the ocean, more specifically 10 Downing Street, the home of the Prime Minister.

            The French room was the fifteenth room.  Since the University of Pittsburgh was founded in 1787, all the rooms were required to reflect architectural periods from that year or earlier.  However, the French room broke this rule since the committee felt that the Napoleonic era had been their nation’s greatest time period.  The committee also demanded that they be given a room looking out at Heinz Chapel since that building was constructed in a French style as well.  Sophisticated chandeliers and gold gilt developed the elegant design.

troll
  The décor reflected empires that the French had conquered; for example, the griffins represented Egypt.  An elaborate tapestry in the back featured several animals including the mythical unicorn.  Golden rather than green boughs decorated the room for Christmas as did a large crèche with many Provincial santons.

            We then visited the Norwegian room.  The architects worked hard within the limits of the room to recreate the Scandinavian atmosphere, and they succeeded admirably.  Since bay windows were not a traditional part of their homes, the designers chose to paint the ceiling a different color from the rest of the room and to lay stone tile rather than wood flooring.  The front of the room was painted with a green background and a floral design.

St. George and the Dragon
  The ceiling received only a little bit of painting: a solar design to represent Norway’s nickname as the land of the midnight sun.  The blue background of the design was repeated in the grandfather clock near the Christmas tree with its little candles and national flags.  A troll sat on the floor by the tree, a bowl of porridge next to him.  Another troll sat in the hearth of the fireplace.

            Number seventeen was the Russian room where a depiction of St. George and the dragon dominated the back wall.  The other noticeable artwork included an icon in the corner and the icon screen in the front of the room.  The screen doubled as the doors to hide the chalkboard.

  Looking up past the dangling light, I liked the engravings of the four seasons in the white ceiling.  A pinecone represented winter, a bud for spring.

            We only glimpsed the last room on the tour: Syria-Lebanon.  While the other rooms were mainly reproductions, this room was all authentic and therefore off limits to visitors.  Originally located in Damascus, it was threatened by the planned development of a freeway.  Purchased for the university, the room received new life.

            Dad and I finished our day at the Cathedral with a trip up to the observation windows on the 36th floor.

  Dad pointed out the Carnegie Museum and downtown.

hauteboy says:
Very nice! I grew up near Pittsburgh as well and went to CMU, but never went in the tower! :(
Posted on: Sep 08, 2010
Africancrab says:
OMG, this was like a child in a candy store, I love architecture
Posted on: Jan 07, 2010
vulindlela says:
Nice photos!
Posted on: Jan 02, 2010
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ceiling of Commons Area
ceiling of Commons Area
Welsh room
Welsh room
African door
African door
African
African
Early American room
Early American room
India
India
Armenian ceiling
Armenian ceiling
Japan
Japan
chandelier in Austrian room
chandelier in Austrian room
Christmas time
Christmas time
Czechoslavakian leader
Czechoslavakian leader
see the gingerbread men?
see the gingerbread men?
stained glass in Germany
stained glass in Germany
the white stag
the white stag
globe
globe
Irish wolfhound
Irish wolfhound
straw Christmas decorations
straw Christmas decorations
ceiling
ceiling
hearth
hearth
Emperors dragon
Emperor's dragon
good luck lion
good luck lion
Burns portrait over the fireplace
Burns portrait over the fireplace
troll
troll
St. George and the Dragon
St. George and the Dragon
chimney in Ukrainian room
chimney in Ukrainian room
relief in Ukrainian room
relief in Ukrainian room
pews in Welsh room
pews in Welsh room
on the Israeli door
on the Israeli door
chalkboard panel
chalkboard panel
how to grow fruits and vegetables
how to grow fruits and vegetables
on a chair
on a chair
Dad in African room
Dad in African room
Kwanzaa decorations
Kwanzaa decorations
Africa bench
Africa bench
Indian window
Indian window
Indian chalkboard doors
Indian chalkboard doors
Armenian
Armenian
Armenian alphabet
Armenian alphabet
over the Armenian doorway
over the Armenian doorway
Austria creche
Austria creche
Frick Auditorium
Frick Auditorium
Miraculous tree
Miraculous tree
Italian fireplace
Italian fireplace
Rome
Rome
Italian chandelier
Italian chandelier
Italian Christmas decoration
Italian Christmas decoration
telling Hungarys story
telling Hungary's story
part of the national anthem
part of the national anthem
over the door in the hallway
over the door in the hallway
above the chalkboard
above the chalkboard
ceiling
ceiling
chalkboard in Lithuanian room
chalkboard in Lithuanian room
sun representation
sun representation
door
door
Wise Men
Wise Men
over the door
over the door
Confucius
Confucius
a little blurry but another neat d…
a little blurry but another neat …
yin yang
yin yang
Greek ceiling
Greek ceiling
thistles
thistles
Scottish plaid on the Christmas tr…
Scottish plaid on the Christmas t…
famous Yugoslavians
famous Yugoslavians
a shield for William Pitt, two fro…
a shield for William Pitt, two fr…
representing Frances conquering o…
representing France's conquering …
French santons
French santons
Heinz Chapel through the window
Heinz Chapel through the window
Norwegian detail
Norwegian detail
bud ceiling detail
bud ceiling detail
chair back
chair back
pinecone ceiling detail
pinecone ceiling detail
icon
icon
peek into the Syria-Lebanon room
peek into the Syria-Lebanon room
Carnegie Museum
Carnegie Museum
Pittsburgh
photo by: diisha392