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June 28, 2007

One grimy stone remains

From top to bottom, the Cathedral’s limestone exterior will gleam when preservation crews are through, but one darkened stone will remain, thanks to Nationality Rooms director E. Maxine Bruhns.

She and Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation officials requested that one weather-worn block of darkened stone near the Fifth Avenue entrance be preserved as a tribute to Pittsburgh’s industrial past.

Bruhns chose the particular block both for its character as well as its location. “What I like about the rectangle is on the lower part, the wind cut these wonderful patterns into it, and then it gets dirtier up above. It has real character,” Bruhns said. The stone is situated close to the building’s National Historic Landmark plaque and near the entrance where Nationality Room tours begin.

“As groups come to view the rooms on tours we can meet them out there and say, ‘This is the way it used to look.’ Honestly, because you know Pittsburgh was built by industry — steel mills — and we just can’t all be squeaky clean and pretend it didn’t happen.”

While Bruhns was convinced that one stone needed to be preserved as a reminder, she wasn’t so sure she could trust it would be done. She sent a memo to Facilities Management officials to let them know she was serious about saving one darkened stone. She even made a pact with co-workers to ensure her wishes were heeded as she departed for a visit to Lebanon in mid-May.

“While I was in the Middle East, [Nationality Rooms staffer] Eileen [Kiley] was going to splay her body in front of it all day to protect it,” Bruhns quipped. “When I got back, I went out and saw a young man there and I said, ‘I’d like to know if you’re going to save this rectangle.’ And he said, ‘That’s my job’ and, by golly, he did. It was fun.”

Park L. Rankin, Pitt’s senior manager of architecture, planning, design and construction, acknowledged that Facilities Management had a certain reluctance to leaving a piece of stone uncleaned.

“But based on many responses that the whole building should not be cleaned because it represented a landmark of our industrial past, we reconsidered, selecting a remote, but recognizable location, which would serve to not only save a remnant of our past, but also to highlight the vast physical improvement to this landmark, now that it has been cleaned,” Rankin said. “Once the cleaning is finished, and decades into the future, when no one will remember that this building was covered in soot and grime, they can compare the before and after, and possibly note what a great thing the University did in the preservation and cleaning of this landmark.”

Cleaning contractor Cost Co. fabricated a metal cover to protect the grimy stone during cleaning, leaving it in its blackened state. While there’s no plaque explaining why one block escaped the process, there soon will be, Bruhns said.

“I think there should be one, just to say what it is and why it’s there and to say when the cleaning was done,” she said. “After all, the school children who bought a brick [during the Cathedral’s construction] probably came from the steel mill towns, and they need to know that some brick is being left in its original state.”

—Peter Hart & Kimberly K. Barlow

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