In search of SECRETS of the CATHEDRAL
We all know the historic landmark’s prime attractions: the internationally famous and utilitarian nationality classrooms, the Commons Room (intended by the Cathedral’s primary founding force Chancellor John G. Bowman to “so grip a boy that he could never enter it with his hat on”), the newly renovated University Honors College on the 35th and 36th floors.
Cathedral occupants and visitors alike are aware of many of the CL’s mundane features: The elevators, the 2,000-plus windows, the ledges that jut out from many floors of architect Charles Z. Klauder’s masterpiece.
But the Gothic Revival skyscraper also holds many secrets.
Some are right under your nose, such as the indentations in the stone corridor walls leading to the Commons Room from the Heinz Chapel entrance; these were to become elevators in the building’s original plans. Or, the curious three-pronged sculpture — marking Pitt’s entry into its third century and said to be a favorite of the late Chancellor Wesley Posvar — on display in one of the building’s two internal courtyards.
Some features are locked away behind inconspicuous maintenance doors, such as the rounded “roof” of the Commons Room hidden behind the elevators that open to the 4th floor.
University Times staff writer Peter Hart scoured the Cathedral, looking for out-of-the-way spots and little-noticed elements. His tour guides included E. Maxine Bruhns, long-time director of the Nationality Rooms Program and a walking encyclopedia of Pitt’s history; Dom Fagnelli, who for more than a quarter century was one of the Cathedral’s dedicated building engineers and who knows the building’s innards like the back of his hand, and Tim Rensland, temporary interim general manager of Pitt’s student radio station, WPTS, whose responsibilities include monitoring the station’s transmitter equipment on the roof of the Cathedral.
University photographer Jim Burke, who for years has documented Pitt’s life and times, provided the visuals for this tour.
Starting at the top
Only authorized Pitt personnel, such as building engineers, have access to the floors above 36, which houses the second floor of the Honors College. A brand new internal staircase connects floors 35 and 36.
A spiral staircase, access to which requires a key, wends from floor 37 up to the 40th floor, home of the Babcock Room, a plush, carpeted wood-paneled conference room used on special occasions, with an adjoining, now mostly unused, kitchen. A new lighting system has been installed in the Babcock Room and an oversized Pitt logo screams up from the carpet.
An alternative to the staircase for reaching floors 37 – 40 is a claustrophobia-inducing locked elevator.
To get to the roof itself from the 40th floor means scaling a steep steel ladder. Acrophobes need not apply.
WPTS’s Tim Rensland opened one of the three locked rooms on the roof — Room 4104 — which houses the radio station’s transmitter, the Pitt ham-radio club’s feed, equipment for relaying the campus police’s car radio messages, and the relay feeder for local WPXI TV’s traffic and news helicopters’ radio transmissions to and from the station. Curiously, the tiny equipment-filled room has inverted-V-shaped windows that are only waist-high, perhaps an indication that the room was built atop another, lower room.
Surrounding the roof’s ledge at regular intervals are FAA-required lights, by Pitt’s choice alternately blue and gold, to alert air traffic to the building’s height, Rensland said.
(Additional gold lights, dubbed victory lights, surround the outside of the highest floors and are lit following a Pitt football win, giving the upper part of the Cathedral an amber glow.)
Room 4111 houses the machinery for the upper-floor elevator and some dusty engineering logbooks recording building inspections of yesteryear.
Room 4132, dark and mysterious from the outside, is labeled “Property of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” Extended out and above from that room are wires connected to what looks like two giant orchestral bass-drums.
Overlooking the roof’s Bigelow-side edge is Pitt’s virtual camera, a remote-controlled device that looks like a desk lamp and swerves as Pitt web site users taking the virtual tour manipulate it.
Over the edge looking toward Heinz Chapel, on a small ledge extending from floor 37, is the giant microwave dish pointed at Pitt’s mainframe computer at RIDC Park in Harmarville.
In the middle of the roof, stuck like a flagpole in a huge block of concrete and metal, is the Cathedral’s lightning rod — an essential architectural feature for the pinnacle of a 535-foot building.
Attached to the lightning rod is the WPTS antenna, looking like a gnarled coat-hanger.
The lightning rod doubles as the perch for a family of peregrine falcons, an endangered species in Pennsylvania, whose nest can be seen in a cranny of one of the roof-top’s surrounding mini-ledges. Remnants of pigeons often litter the roof’s floor, a telltale sign of the falcons’ feasts.
According to building engineer Dom Fagnelli, in addition to the lightning rod, there is a one-inch-wide copper wire wrapped around the outside of the entire Cathedral to ground the building. The building’s original copper grounding strip has now weathered to a hospital green. At the base, the copper band is attached to several 1-inch thick copper grounding plates near the basement loading dock.
From 38 on down
The Cathedral’s steel frame structure is overlaid with Indiana limestone carved with Gothic ornamentation at each corner of the tower and stone window tracery terminating at the alternately rising ledges. The building includes more than 2,000 rooms and 2,500 windows — and a host of little-known features, including:
• 38th floor — This floor is one large room humming from the elevator cable machinery that was installed only a few years ago when the elevators were upgraded. It also boasts a revamped central air conditioning system, which was installed at the same time. “This floor was one of the first to be air conditioned, going way back, one of the very few in the whole building, because of the sensitive nature of the equipment that needed to be monitored,” Pitt building engineer Dom Fagnelli said.
Floor 38 is one of three floors that houses brand new chilled water tanks. Chilled water is pumped up to the 38th floor from the 24th floor relay pump into 20,000 gallon tanks; from there, the water is fed down to service the 25th-37th floors, Fagnelli said. “There’s just no way to get city water pressure up here.”
Similarly, new chilled water tanks on the 24th and 14th floors service the floors below them.
The chilled water pipes are an integral part of a recently completed power shaft, or “utilities spine,” that runs all the way up the Cathedral to floor 38. This shaft contains data cables and pipes carrying water for emergency sprinklers, and will enable Pitt to more efficiently install floor-specific central air conditioning and to service electrical problems.
While installation of the spine produced many disruptions, newcomers to the Cathedral would be hard pressed to find evidence of the shaft, which resides mostly in unobtrusive closets.
• 35th and 36th floors — Renovations completed this summer to the Honors College have created a two-story arched window that’s visible from miles around at night.
The renovations feature a four-leaf medieval quatrefoil motif — in nautical terms, a compass rose — ideal for the Cathedral, which sits at a near-perfect 45 degrees to the four directions of the compass.
The motif is repeated in the 1st floor’s stone masonry, as well as in the small iron fences that separate the 1st floor corridors from the Commons Room.
• 20th floor — Now a conference room for the School of Social Work, room 2017 still has wood- and glass-enclosed chemical storage areas imbedded in its wall, a remnant of when the room was a science lab.
• 16th floor — From the 16th floor windows, you can look out on the top of rooms 1409 and 1420, two rooms with two-story high ceilings.
On a narrow pathway to the 16th floor outer ledge, theatre arts types have scrawled their names and other messages on the wall, a tradition usually reserved for backstage areas.
• 12th floor — According to Fagnelli, Eva Brosius, then-University Senate secretary, used to grow tomato plants on the ledge accessible from room 1212’s office window. “I used to go out and help her water them when she was getting older,” he said.
• 5th floor — Pitt’s original lending library check-out desk, from the days when the main library was in the Cathedral, still rests in the same spot in what is now an English department office, room 501.
• 4th floor — Locked away behind inconspicuous maintenance doors, one in the 4th floor men’s room, is the rounded internal “roof” of the Commons Room. Essentially, then, the Commons Room roof continues up into the center of the 4th floor, hidden behind the elevators.
Three unsigned, undated mounted murals, apparently depicting classic Renaissance painting styles, hang incongruously in a hallway outside remodeled College of General Studies (CGS) staff offices. The history of the paintings, each about 7 feet by 3 feet and glass-encased, is shrouded in mystery, at least to the 4th floor’s current occupants.
“I don’t think anybody knows the true origin. I’ve worked here at Pitt for 32 years, and they’ve been here longer than that,” said Sherry Miller Brown, director of CGS’s McCarl Center.
• 3rd floor — A locked room directly above the Samuel Yellen wrought-iron gate, near the lower-floor elevators, houses a pipe organ, no longer in use. According to nationality rooms director Maxine Bruhns, the organ was played for many years at the annual holiday open house and other special events.
That room also housed a P.A. system at one time, Fagnelli said. “When I got here (in 1967) the equipment was still there but not operational. It was operated in the 3rd floor overhang (where the organ is).”
• 2nd floor — A new elevator for special needs passengers now services the 2nd floor.
The Commons Room
Many people familiar with Pitt’s history know the words inscribed on the Commons Room’s most famous feature, the wrought-iron gate welded on-the-spot by master iron worker Samuel Yellen. The words read: “Here is eternal spring; for you the very stars of heaven are new.”
But did you know the verse is taken from a poem by Robert Bridges titled “Ode to Eaton College”? Or, that an engraved stone on the wall bracing the gate, dated December 1940, honors the gate’s benefactor, George Hubbard Clapp, Pitt Class of 1877 and chairman of the Pitt trustees at the beginning of the 20th century?
Other commemorative pieces of the 1st floor/Commons Room area include the gift from the Class of 1941 of a stained-glass window that looks out at Stephen Foster Memorial.
There is a mounted plaque of a heavy-handed, dark-imaged poem titled “The Cathedral,” penned by Pitt fraternity brother Lawrence Lee in honor of Stanton Chapman Crawford, who became interim chancellor in 1965 following the death of Chancellor Edward H. Litchfield.
There also is a plaque commemorating the designation in 1974 of the Cathedral as a historical landmark, along with individual historical designations for some of its famous components, including the nationality classrooms, the 6th floor’s Darlington Library, the Braun Room, the Commons Room and the Croghan-Schenley Room.
• The Commons Room cornerstone — According to Robert Alberts’s history, “Pitt — The Story of the University of Pittsburgh, 1787-1987,” Chancellor John G. Bowman, 16 years after arriving in Pittsburgh to become Pitt’s 21st chancellor, laid the cornerstone of the Commons Room on June 4, 1937. It was 4 p.m. on a Friday when Bowman, trowel in hand, sealed the cornerstone.
The large hollow stone, a gift of the Class of 1937, Pitt’s sesquicentennial year, contained a time capsule of documents, many on treated paper meant to last 500 years, the supposed lifespan of the building.
The documents included signatures of the graduating class and faculty, a University catalogue, a copy of the 1937 Owl yearbook, a Pitt News edition, the names of the building’s major donors and the craftsmen who helped construct the Cathedral, and an engraved plate to commemorate gifts of the original 17 nationality rooms.
A statement was attached, puzzling if not downright confusing: “The Cathedral of Learning expresses for Pittsburgh a desire to live honestly in a world where kindness and the happiness of creating are life.”
But to find the cornerstone, you need to know where to look, because it’s hidden behind one of the wooden study benches in the Commons Room. “The bench fits perfectly there, and I thought I was the only one left who knew the cornerstone’s location,” said nationality rooms director Maxine Bruhns. “I guess the secret’s out now.”
If one is facing the famous Samuel Yellen gate, with the elevators beyond, the cornerstone is at the far end of the left major pillar adjoining the gate, under the 1937 dedication plaque.
• The Croghan-Schenley Room — One of the Cathedral’s true hidden treasures is the Croghan-Schenley Room, room 156. (Actually it’s two adjoining rooms — the Ballroom and the Oval Room — connected by a hidden passageway in the Ballroom’s fireplace.)
In 1955, the rooms were donated to Pitt by William S. Miller, then president of Steelwood Corp., who had purchased the Croghan mansion in Stanton Heights following World War II.
The house was built in 1830 by William Croghan, whose daughter Mary would elope as a teenager in 1842 with English captain Edward Schenley.
The elopement caused a family schism and, following the death of William Croghan in 1850, the mansion was run by caretakers with no permanent residents for some 60 years. When Miller bought the mansion, it was soon to be leveled in favor of a new housing development.
The Croghan-Schenley rooms instead were dismantled and rebuilt in the Cathedral, except that the original ceilings had to be lowered about 8 inches to accommodate the available space, Bruhns said.
In 1982, the rooms were refurbished to their 19th-century glory.
Highlighting the ballroom are the hand-cut glass chandelier and four wooden, hand-carved Greek columns, surviving examples of western Pennsylvania’s Greek classical revival period.
The Croghan-Schenley rooms are the last extant vestiges of the estate of Mary Schenley, who before she died gave much of her holdings and property to the city of Pittsburgh — including Schenley farms, where the Cathedral sits, and Schenley Park.
• Syria-Lebanon Room — Of the 1st floor’s nationality rooms, only the Syria-Lebanon Room (room 160) is not in the building’s outer ring. Located opposite the Heinz Chapel side entrance, the Syria-Lebanon Room is kept locked, but glass panes in the door allow viewing. Like all its companions, this nationality room represents an outstanding architectural or design tradition from before 1787, the date of Pitt’s founding.
The Syria-Lebanon Room depicts a library in a Damascus home, circa 1780. The walls and ceilings are decorated with “gesso painting,” a mixture of chalk and glue applied by brush in intricate relief, then painted and overlaid with silver and gold leaf. The room features a prayer niche, oriented toward Mecca, and book cabinets and display shelves.
Underneath it all
In the bowels of the great building are the well-known Studio Theatre with its accompanying rooms for set design and lighting production, and well-trafficked offices such as the old Central Printing shop.
Out-of-the-way places include a small room, B-25 (now a storage area for the nationality rooms) that formerly housed the building’s original engineering seismograph, where daily checks of the surrounding earth’s movements were recorded. Initially, Pitt engineering professor J. Hammond Smith, who was on the Pitt faculty from 1900 to 1932, logged the daily findings, according to nationality rooms director Maxine Bruhns. This past year, Smith’s three daughters, remembering the room from their childhood, visited what’s left of the seismograph.“Ted Bowman, nephew of Chancellor John Bowman and for a long time the University architect, showed me the seismograph when I first came here in 1965,” Bruhns said. “At that point the instruments were still there, but disconnected. Now what remains is the concrete slab that was the platform for the sensing mechanism.
“Incidentally, Ted Bowman told me that the seismograph was disconnected because it mostly measured the ongoing streetcar traffic right outside the Cathedral,” she said.
Also in the Cathedral’s depths runs a little-known tunnel from the Henry Heymann Theatre (the basement area of Stephen Foster Memorial) into the CL under the loading dock level.
In this passageway are pipes, fuse boxes, valves and other equipment, some of which remain largely untouched since the 1930s except for routine maintenance.
About midway through the tunnel between the Cathedral and Stephen Foster, surrounded by ancient steam and water pipes, sits an incongruous new computer station where central-control hardware is being readied, engineer Dom Fagnelli said. “Soon we’ll be able to monitor temperatures in the rooms of the Cathedral remotely and change temperatures right from here,” he said, predicting that the building engineers’ job will be made easier.
Also in the passageway are “extras” of the original building materials, such as boxes of metal elbow joints and crates of labeled and dated core soil samples, the unclaimed remnants of the CL’s original excavation and construction.
The long-forgotten soil samples call to mind a famous story in Pitt’s history, which is recounted in Robert Alberts’s book, “Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh, 1787-1987.”
Facing stiff opposition to his plans for building the Cathedral, Chancellor Bowman faced off with his predecessor, William J. Holland at a November 1924 Board of Trustees dinner. Reportedly, Holland, then curator of the Carnegie Museum and speaking as a geologist, announced in a booming voice, “I feel forced to tell you what I know about the ground chosen for this building. …Under the surface … is a deep bed of quicksand. No such building could be erected there. It is lucky the quicksand is there. The whole plan is utter nonsense.”
But Bowman was prepared, holding up a flat piece of rock with a four-inch diameter. “We had a test boring made at each corner of the building location, each 170 feet deep. The quicksand is there. The layer, near the surface, is eight feet thick.” The sample rock was from a core drill 60 feet below the surface, from a slab that was 40 feet deep, Bowman said. He then produced a bushel basket of the rock samples. “They are for you as a souvenir of this meeting. They will make good paperweights.”
At least one of Bowman’s famous samples survives. Bruhns has one she uses as a paperweight — appropriately, in her Cathedral of Learning office.