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University of Pittsburgh

September 11, 2003

Secrets of the Cathedral: 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.

Filed under: Feature, Volume 36 Issue 2

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