|Owner||University of Pittsburgh|
Pittsburgh’s best skyscraper isn’t even downtown among the expected grouping. Indeed, much of the Cathedral of Learning’s quirky romanticism derives from its site, with comfortable greenspace surrounding and only the notably lower cultural and academic temples of the Oakland district nearby.
The University of Pittsburgh has history going back to 1784 in some modest and provisional locations downtown and in the North Side. After an ambitious plan in 1907 for a hillside acropolis only produced a few modest buildings on the new campus in Oakland, Chancellor John Bowman decided in 1921 that a spectacular architectural gesture was in order. He hired architect Charles Klauder, a leading Gothic revival architect from Philadelphia. While Klauder’s portfolio consisted largely of tasteful low-rise academic buildings (with the occasional church-like spire) at Princeton, Penn State, and the University of Delaware, the two concocted the image of a gargantuan academic skyscraper, reportedly as strains of Wagner played in the background.
Drama proved an effective counterbalance for practicality. Over the protests of naysayers within the university who questioned the height and extravagance, construction began in 1926 and continued through 1937, topping out at 535 feet and 42 stories, a record for eccentricity over practicality. No Western academic building is taller, though few have really tried.
Pittsburgh schoolchildren, some 97,000 of them, offered dimes toward the building’s construction as more public relations than fundraising. Meanwhile, Andrew Mellon and his family would donate millions for property acquisition and Gothic architectural accuracy.
The completed building is a study in flawed charm. It has too few elevators, and unfinished interior spaces persisted decades after its purported completion. But the Commons Room is a stunningly romantic Gothic space, four stories high and half an acre in area. Clad in Indiana Limestone and Guastavino tile, its ribbed vault construction brings authentic medieval technique into the twentieth century. It also earns a new generation of fans for whom Hogwarts is a model of academia.
Its nationality rooms, each decorated to portray the cultural traditions of a specific ethnic group, expand the practice of enfranchising the community in its own selection architecture. Twenty-nine of these are complete, mostly as working classrooms, with seven more in planning stages.
Gothic skyscrapers, such as the Chicago Tribune Building, were in fashion, at least in the United States, in the early 1920s, but were so hopelessly retardataire fifteen years later that Modernist giant Le Corbusier specifically mocked the Cathedral in print. That hardly matters now. The Cathedral persists. It had its masonry skin cleaned in 2007, resulting in the loss of a quintessentially Pittsburgh coat of surprisingly photogenic grime. A gently modernized Honors College (of 2003) in its upper floors makes views more easily accessible. A few architectural fashions have come and gone, and university education itself has changed, but the message that learning can be aspirational and romantic lives on with delightful clarity in this building.
By Charles L. Rosenblum, Ph. D.
Charles Klauder (1872-1938) worked extensively on university buildings over his career as an architect.