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.
Bowman Pushes Forward
Bowman hired Philadelphia architect Charles Klauder. He’d gotten rave reviews for many campus buildings, and he had done a lot of Gothic, but never anything more than traditional college height.
One story says Bowman went to Klauder with his vision, and they put their heads together with dramatic scores of Richard Wagner playing in the background. Their planning took two years.
It received strong resistance from the community and from some Pitt officials, who felt the 42-story building was too tall for the city.
Backed by the Mellons and anyone who cared what the Mellons thought, Bowman took his evangelical zeal into the community.
He got 97,000 school children to “buy a brick” for the cathedral. It cost them a dime and they got a certificate proving their ownership. Many still held the certificate 50 years later. The money meant little to the project, of course, but what better way to establish and maintain a community connection?
Bowman said 17,000 adults also donated to the cause. Local industries gave large gifts of steel, cement, elevators, glass, plumbing and heating elements,
When construction started in 1926, steel rose skyward making it the tallest building in the city. It took so long to get its stone facade installed, however, that it ranked second tallest by the time it opened.
The tallest? The 44-story Gulf Building downtown, now known as the Gulf Tower, reached 582 feet. Gulf’s Art Deco icon opened in 1932 after two years of construction.
Who was controlling Gulf Oil? Oh yeah, I remember. It was Andrew Mellon.
It would seem he liked heights.
Who’s Got the Tallest Education Buildings?
Moscow State University, finished in 1953, gets bragging rights as the tallest, but it cheats.
It is only 36 stories, compared with Pitt’s 42. But, it is topped with a 187-foot spire.
Since 2008, Tokyo offers two education buildings taller than the Cathedral of Learning. They are the Mode Gakuen Cocoon at 670 feet and the Sprial Towers at 556 feet.
Pitt Vision Was Out of Vogue
Gothic skyscrapers, such as the Chicago Tribune Building, were in fashion, at least in the United States, in the early 1920s.
The tallest one, the Woolworth Building in New York City, was finished in 1913. It’s still the tallest.
The Cathedral of Learning developed a dark Pittsburgh patina to go with its Goth look, but Pitt officials preferred a clean look and had the grime removed in 2007.
- On the Pitt campus, they bring the cathedral down to Earth by calling it Cathy.
- Another strident visionary featured in a previous post, Edward V. Babcock, is remembered in the cathedral. A fancy board room bearing his name and portrait was built after his family put up the equivalent of $1.2 million in today’s money. Peregrine falcons like to nest outside.
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