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November 20, 2008

Story of Cathedral told on DVD

What do 165,000 numbered stones, 97,000 dimes, the Great Depression, an aluminum silicate paperweight and music from Wagner’s “Die Valkyrie” have in common?

Pitt institutional history buffs will know that those are integral components of the planning and construction of the Cathedral of Learning, the brainchild of John G. Bowman, Pitt chancellor 1921-1945.

Those who don’t know the story now have an authoritative source of information. The chronicle of the Cathedral, from concept to design to execution, has been captured in a new 45-minute DVD written and narrated by E. Maxine Bruhns, director of the Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange Programs.

Bruhns said her motivation to produce “The Story Behind the Construction of the Cathedral of Learning” was two-fold: to honor the 100th anniversary of Pitt’s relocation from Downtown to Oakland and to dispel certain myths about the Cathedral’s construction perpetuated during campus tours.

“The DVD documents, through archival material, the dramatic challenges Chancellor Bowman overcame to create what he called the ‘tall building,’” Bruhns said. There were chronic funding problems, land acquisition issues, fluctuating University, public, government and industry support, and design problems, she noted.

The effort to build Pitt’s signature edifice, the world’s second tallest academic building, also led to the creation of the Nationality Classrooms as a way of enlisting immigrant-worker support.

“Bowman needed a plan that could capture the imagination of mill-toughened people and make them allies in his battle to resurrect and rebuild the University of Pittsburgh,” which at the time was debt-ridden and facing an influx of the post-World War I student population, Bruhns said.

That the Cathedral was built at all is a testimony to Bowman’s tenacity over 15 years to garner community support and raise funds. With a $10-million-plus price tag — a pretty penny in those days — to construct the 535-foot, 42-story Gothic skyscraper that encompasses some 13 million cubic feet of space, Bowman’s task was daunting, Bruhns added.

Plans for the building, constructed of Indiana limestone on a 14-acre site that had been part of the Henry Clay Frick estate, repeatedly changed in height and scope. Initial architectural designs called for a 30-story building surrounded by smaller, traditional buildings; a news release said the tower would rise to 52 stories; early sketches show comparative elevations at 450 and 650 feet, and Pitt trustees were insisting on a 29-story limit — all of which, compounded by the Depression, delayed the project several times.

Ground eventually was broken Sept. 27, 1926, and the cornerstone was laid by Bowman June 4, 1937, in the Commons Room, itself a feat of architectural engineering.

The DVD was produced by Pittsburgh-based Image Recordings.

Pitt contributors to the DVD’s production include William Becze, a theatre arts student; Michael Walter, the Quo Vadis coordinator for the Nationality Rooms program; Joseph Kapelewski and Michael Drazdzinski, photographers at the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education; Mark M. Brown, former student whose master’s thesis discussed the tower’s design and construction; the Men’s Glee Club, and staff at the Special Collections Archives at Hillman Library.

The DVD is expected to go on sale in early December, Bruhns said. Copies will be available for $15.95 at the Nationality Rooms Gift Center (first floor of the Cathedral) and The Book Center. For more information, contact the Nationality Rooms office at 4-6150.

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 7

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