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University of Pittsburgh

September 11, 2003

Secrets of the Cathedral: 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.

Filed under: Feature, Volume 36 Issue 2

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