Located in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood is the University of Pittsburgh. The focal point of the campus is the 535-foot-tall Cathedral of Learning, which is located just around the corner from the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum. Opened in 1931, the 42-story skyscraper is the second-tallest university building in the world.
This late gothic revival-style building was constructed between 1926 and 1937, though classes began several years before its completion. The Cathedral of Learning is the eighth tallest building in Pittsburgh, but towers over everything else in its vicinity, making it greatly stand out in the Pittsburgh skyline.
Most of the Cathedral of Learning is taken up by mundane classrooms and office space. However, there are three areas of the building that are worth checking out while you are visiting Pittsburgh: the Commons Room, the Nationality Rooms, and the building’s 36th floor.
The Commons Room takes up a large portion of the Cathedral of Learning’s first floor. Looking like a set straight out of the Harry Potter films, the castle-esque cathedral provides an impressive setting for the university’s students to study. Designed in a 15th-century gothic style, the room is made almost entirely of limestone and slate with no steel reinforcement in the arches. The Commons Room is half an acre in size and reaches heights of over fifty feet.
The Cathedral of Learning is also home to one of Pittsburgh’s most amazing hidden secrets: the Nationality Rooms. Located on the first and third floors of the building, these rooms honor the history and heritage of Pittsburgh’s various ethnic groups.
The first four Nationality Rooms (German, Russian, Scottish, and Swedish) opened in 1938, and rooms continue to be built. The most recent room (Korean) was opened in November 2015. All told, there are 30 Nationality Rooms currently opened that represent four continents (Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America). Each room is designed by native architects and artists and features a glimpse into their country’s history pre-1787, the year the University of Pittsburgh was founded.
Eighteen Nationality Rooms are located on the first floor of the Cathedral of Learning. These were the first rooms completed and date from between 1938 and 1957. To visit these rooms, visitors must stop by the gift shop and information desk to get a key and an audio guide.
The cost of this is $4, but allows visitors to see these beautiful and historic rooms. The guides themselves provide interesting information about each culture, the creation of the room, and the significance of items in the rooms.
The twelve rooms on the third floor are open to the public to visit for free whenever there is not a class using the room. These rooms each have a button near the light switch that provides the same audio narration about the rooms as the handheld device does for the first floor rooms. These rooms on the third floor represent the newest Nationality Rooms and are the location of nearly all of the African and Asian rooms.
It’s important to remember when planning a visit to the Nationality Rooms at the Cathedral of Learning that 28 of the rooms are still active classrooms.
Self-guided tours of the first floor rooms and many of the third-floor rooms are only available during weekends when the university is in session and during the summertime. However, if you can only visit on a weekday in the school year, you may have the ability to pop your head into several of the unused classrooms on the third floor. Just remember to avoid any rooms that are being used.
Walking through the Nationality Rooms is like taking a trip around the world without leaving the confines of the Cathedral of Learning. Having been to roughly half of the countries featured in the Nationality Rooms, I found each to be a great representation of that country’s history and culture. For those that want to learn more, the provided information gives a great, but brief overview of the featured culture.
The necessary classroom items, such as desks, lecterns, and televisions are well incorporated into each room. However, the uncomfortable seating in some of the rooms makes me glad that I don’t have to take classes there (I’m looking at you African Nationality Room).
Once you’ve visited the Nationality Rooms, there is still one more stop on your tour of the Cathedral of Learning. Hop in one of the elevators and take it to the 36th floor, the highest publicly accessible floor in the building.
While it’s little more than a narrow hallway with a few locked doors (one of which leads to the Honors College), the view through the small windows is quite spectacular. The view would be even better if there was a window pointing west (towards downtown), but, alas, the views are to the north and south.
Interestingly, there is typically a peregrine falcon nest that’s located atop this building, and you can live-stream the baby chicks here in the spring.
Overall, the Cathedral of Learning should be near the top of your list when visiting Pittsburgh. It’s proximity to the Carnegie Museums of National History and Art, Heinz Chapel, the remains of Forbes Field, and Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens make it a centrally-located destination for history and culture lovers in downtown Pittsburgh or Oakland.
The exceptional Nationality Rooms are clearly the highlight, but the chance to see the Commons Room and the view from near the top of this beautiful building make it an incredibly special place to visit in Pittsburgh.
And, if you get a chance, visit again during the holiday season to see the Nationality Rooms decorated for Christmas around the world.
Hours: Tour times vary (see website)
Cost: Adults: $10, Youth (6-18 years old): $6
Address: 4200 Fifth Ave