By MARTY LEVINE
Imagine a Cathedral of Learning taller than it is today — by 10 stories, or 280 feet — and you’ll see the vision Chancellor John G. Bowman had for this building back in 1921, three years before he announced it on Nov. 7, 1924.
This 52-story Cathedral of Learning was meant to house every classroom and laboratory on campus, except those of the medical and dental schools, as well as the main library and other facilities — accommodating 12,000 people at once, using 16 elevators.
It was to be “the greatest educational structure in the world,” the local papers enthused, “and incidentally, the third tallest building in the world, ranking only after New York’s skyscrapers.”
The site, 14 acres bordered by Fifth, Forbes and Bellefield, then held a home occupied by Pitt’s superintendent of buildings and grounds, the department of zoology buildings (home to a “menagerie of colored rats and rabbits,” the press noted) and the research bureau of retail training, which awarded diplomas to workers in local department stores.
These acres also still held the Pittsburgh Athletic Association tennis courts, which had seen Western Pennsylvania and national clay court championships starring Bill Tilden. During World War I, the land had held a YWCA “hospitality headquarters” and a 1914 two-acre tent revival meeting by the famed Billy Sunday, attended by thousands.
With such a large tract, speculators had planned but never built both “a monumental approach to Schenley Park” and “a scheme for modern apartment buildings,” as well as “theaters, clubs or a high type of community center,” the papers reported. Henry Clay Frick was thought to have plans for the place, cancelled only by his death in 1919.
Frick Acres, as the area was known, was part of the Schenley family’s homestead, and in time grew a few “elegant and pretentious homes,” author Theodore Dreiser noted in his autobiography, back when “pretentious” was good.
It wouldn’t have been hard to squeeze all of Pitt into the Cathedral at that time. There were only five permanent buildings on campus then (not counting the Pitt-affiliated Mellon Institute), including a dental clinic, automotive lab and gym, alongside the medical and dental schools, plus many temporary structures.
Above all — way above all, towering over all the surrounding hills to give unbroken sight lines to Ohio, West Virginia, and deep into Pennsylvania — this building was to embody Pittsburgh’s industrial spirit in a new way.
Bowman told the University Club crowd during his announcement: “Pittsburgh is known as a center of wealth and industry. It is known for the making of steel, glass, and machinery. The idea of vast tonnage production, in the minds of millions of people, is associated with this city. But all of this is only one phase of the real Pittsburgh.
“There is a way of thinking, a way of doing, a spirit here out of which has come the wealth, the manufacturing, and the tonnage production. This spirit is little known. It was brought here by the pioneers. Then it grew under pioneer conditions until it became an outstanding quality in the entire district; never a thing to be grasped, but an atmosphere to be breathed. … The new building is to express this spirit of achievement with such force and with such grasp of its sublimity that the whole world will understand. It is to be the greatest structure ever erected by any community to tell its own living will.
“Such expression requires height,” he explained, “perpendicular lines that run up and up unbroken, ending at an elevation which, as you behold it, sends blood to your finger tips; and at the top there should be no spire, but rather a horizontal skyline, as if to say, we could go still higher, but the supreme wonder and value of life is not in attainment; it is in the attaining, in the growth, in the striving to reach the unattainable.”
“Who’s going to get the spyglass concession for the Cathedral of Learning?” the Gazette Times joked.
Bowman went on to speak in the same breath — as he believed all would eventually do — of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, Westminster Abbey and Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, and memorials in Athens, Rome and Paris.
The idea received masses of great press — and some skepticism. The Indianapolis News had a bit of fun with the price tag of $10 million and the idea of a “Cathedral of Learning,” suggesting instead “a $10,000,000 stadium, entirely surrounded with fraternity houses, each to cost not less than $500,000, and each supplied with ample garage space, with day and night service stations at intervals close enough to avoid all delay and inconvenience. Thus will basketball, baseball, football, proms, dances and all the more important college activities be provided for, and the four years good time that the students come for assured — if they have the price.”
A cartoon in Life magazine showed workers on the Cathedral roof — getting ready to lay the cornerstone for Pitt’s graduate school right on top of it.
Planners quickly made some paper calculations that the building would only need eight elevators after all, if facilities requiring longer stays and less frequent visits — labs and libraries, for instance — could be concentrated on higher floors. Students could just walk to classes on the first four floors, they concluded.
Meanwhile, Bowman continued to voice his vision of a unique educational space: “We propose not to have a single barren, ugly recitation room, with rows of cheap chairs such as are generally found in American colleges and universities. Each room must be beautiful. Isn’t it about time that we take seriously the idea that beauty is essential in life?
“Each room is to resemble a private study in a home. The chairs are not to be in rows, but they are to be, rather, as you would find them in a study. And the chairs are not all to be alike. I should desire that there be one splendid chair in each recitation room. That chair is for the master (the faculty member).Around the walls of the rooms we want pictures — very good ones — appropriate to the subject studied in the room.”
The Cathedral of Learning “is not to be an information stuffing institute,” the Pittsburgh Gazette Times concluded rather awkwardly.
By early 1925, the fundraising campaign began among steel magnates and schoolchildren, under the slogan “It’s Your University.” And someone at Pitt proposed the navigational nightmare that “none of the rooms or halls of the building will be numbered, but each will be known by some name which has been notable in the community” — based on donations.
“The prediction has been made that people will come to see this university building as they go to see St. Peters in Rome and the pyramids in Egypt,” said the Pittsburgh Post.
At very least, it added, with the effort to start air mail in Pittsburgh by July 1925, the Cathedral would be a better beacon for airplanes — “more satisfactory than the glare of furnace fires or the reflection of city lights,” it said.
Borings were done, confirming that bedrock for anchoring the mammoth structure was accessible — the original bed of the Monongahela, which once looped from Braddock through Edgewood, Wilkinsburg and East Liberty to Oakland, before switching to its current course.
And then, plans changed.
In June 1926, the board of trustees announced that a million-dollar bequest from Mary O’Hara Darlington for a standalone library meant lopping the library — and 23 floors — off the plans, and planting a few shorter buildings around the Cathedral.
That September, the Cathedral was announced as a 29-story structure, and on Sept. 27, “in a drizzling rain, massive steam shovels turned the first scoopful of earth for the foundation … There were no special ceremonies attending the groundbreaking,” although it was witnessed by Bowman — who gave an impromptu speech — and about 200 students and faculty members.
The Cathedral of Learning was to become a 42-story building, and other plans for campus improvements were simultaneously underway: $2 million in bonds had been sold for a “sport stadium” in November 1924, and a medical center of hospitals and schools was underway by August 1925, with the Children’s Hospital already being built.
But the Cathedral has still managed to stand out, probably because it stands alone. As the Post pointed out, while the structure was still in its planning stages, the Cathedral would be “one of the few skyscrapers in the world that … will not stand in congested quarters, surrounded by other lofty edifices shutting off the view” — just as the French do with their “cathedrals and great public buildings.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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