Why did Pitt decide to build a high-rise to house itself? At the time it was built, I would guess it might have been relatively easy to spread out with lower buildings instead. I’m not aware of any other similar high-rise universities. Was high-rise a fad? — Wayne Narr, Houston
There are four main reasons why a towering Hogwarts-like Cathedral of Learning is in Oakland to astonish the eye.
- Oakland was already running out of room in the 1920s.
- A tenacious visionary came from Davenport, Iowa.
- Pitt was fully private then. It had no accountability to taxpayers and the people they elect.
- Wealthy families contributed millions to make it happen. They overcame faculty opposition, the Great Depression and technical difficulties of blending Gothic architecture with a modern skyscraper.
It took 11 years to build. What did we get for their efforts?
Well, we got a quirky skyscraper comfortably standing amid every city planner’s dream: greenspace.
After 90 years, the 535-foot tower is still the tallest education building in the Western Hemisphere. Granted, few have wanted to take higher learning so literally.
John Bowman did.
He was chancellor in 1921, having just come from the University of Iowa.
Pitt was already 137 years old. It was following an ambitious 1907 plan for a 42-acre campus on the side of Herron Hill.
But, it had built only five relatively modest, classic Greek-style buildings. That architect envisioned underground escalators that would get students up and down the steep slope.
Bowman, remember, was from Iowa. A hillside campus did not appeal to him. Even if it would look like Greek temples perched between escalators.
It was right after World War I and enrollment skyrocketed. Temporary wooden buildings were set up.
Bowman looked down from Herron Hill and imagined a single Gothic tower rising from a flat, 14-acre area known as Frick Acres.
It wasn’t exactly empty. It included nice homes, gardens, and tennis courts.
But, Bowman got help. Andrew and Richard Mellon liked the idea. That made other important people like it. Frick Acres residents did not go willingly, but they could not stop “progress.” The Mellons bought the land and gave it to the university.
Pitt, with institutional grandeur, attributes the following statement to Bowman:
“The building was to be more than a schoolhouse; it was to be a symbol of the life that Pittsburgh through the years had wanted to live. It was to make visible something of the spirit that was in the hearts of pioneers as, long ago, they sat in their log cabins and thought by candlelight of the great city that would sometime spread out beyond their three rivers and that even they were starting to build.”
Blah, blah . . . Yeah, he was a romantic. And, a marketer.
A far more believable quote is attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright, the famed architect whose work is as far removed from a Gothic tower as one can get.
“It is the largest ‘Keep Off the Grass’ sign I have ever seen,” he grumbled.