Cathedral of Learning – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - Atlas Obscura
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Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Cathedral of Learning

The largest university building in the West is a gothic masterpiece containing dozens of theme rooms based on different countries. 

Towering above the University of Pittsburgh campus, the grandly named Cathedral of Learning is a masterpiece of neo-gothic architecture that holds 29 different rooms distinctly themed to different countries, and most of which still operate as classrooms. 

Dedicated in 1937, the sky-scraping educational institution was devised to alleviate overcrowding at the university by building vertically instead of continuing to sprawl. Instead of constructing a utilitarian behemoth, the design of the building was given over to one of the preeminent Gothic architects of the time who then essentially created Pittsburgh’s own Hogwarts. Possibly the most incredible of the original features was the massive “Common Room” which rises up three stories to sweeping stone arches. When the building was completed, it was the tallest building in Pittsburgh at the time and to this day it continues to be the tallest university building in the Western Hemisphere. 

While the building was under construction, the head of the university wanted to involve the community as much as possible so he devised the Nationality Rooms program. The idea behind the program was that each of the influential nationalities which contributed to the founding and growth of Pittsburgh could decorate their own room in the cathedral using the traditional style of their native region. Each country was responsible for the initial design and costs and a number of the entrants received funding, decorations, and artifacts from their native governments. In the end 29 different rooms were created by by groups representing everywhere from China to Lithuania to Russia.

To this day all but two of the Nationality Rooms are still in use as active classrooms, but have not been changed since their creation giving a distinctly old world feel to each one that fits the overall feel of the Cathedral of Learning perfectly. 

Frank Lloyd Wright was not impressed with the Cathedral of Learning. He was quoted by the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph newspaper as saying, “That’s the most stupendous ‘keep-off-the-grass’ sign I’ve ever seen.” Pitt students don’t read it that way. They use the Cathedral’s expansive lawn in good weather for studying and sun bathing.

Know Before You Go

There is a $4 fee to explore the rooms on the first floor, which are kept locked at all times. The third floor, which contains the rest of the Nationality Rooms, is kept open at all times, and the audio clips are actually installed in each room, requiring one to only flip a toggle switch by the door as they enter each room. Visitors who pay the fee are given an audio guide containing audio clips for each of the rooms on the first floor, a map, as well as a key that opens the Nationality Rooms on this floor.If one has no desire to explore the entirety of the Nationality Rooms, it's possible to just head straight to the third floor (either by elevator or by stairs) and explore the rooms that are open to all, at no cost.Note that these are active classrooms, and so the best time to visit would be between terms.