The Early American Room in the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning is a spooky place. And not just because it's Halloween.
Whereas the hall outside and Commons Room three floors below are bustling with collegiate activity, this wood-paneled ode to 17th-century America is dark and quiet as (dare we say it?) a tomb.
The working spinning wheel and antique coin collection in opposite corners are wonderful pieces of Americana. And the room's 9-foot-long cooking fireplace, crafted more than 70 years ago from 200-year-old handmade bricks, is about as cool as they get.
It's what's hidden behind that massive structure -- and the ghost story that goes with it -- that may give you the willies.
It's a decades-old tale that E. Maxine Bruhns, who's served as Nationality Rooms director since 1965, is eager to tell. To do that, we need to go to the heart of Room 328's haunted history. Opening a closet door to the left of the fireplace, she reaches around in the darkness until she finds a lever embedded in the wood. As she presses down, part of the wall swings open, revealing a hidden dogleg staircase to a bedroom loft almost no one knows is there.
As she climbs the narrow, winding steps, an antique four-poster rope bed with a pretty red-and-green hand-stitched quilt comes into view. Bathed in a dim shaft of sunlight to the right is a small cradle. Both belonged to Pittsburgh pianist/composer Ethelbert Nevin, a contemporary of Stephen Foster. Both, Mrs. Bruhns continues, have been visited by poltergeists.
The strange goings-on started almost 30 years ago, shortly after Mrs. Bruhns donated several of her grandmother's personal items to decorate the space, one of only two among the cathedral's 27 rooms not used as a classroom.
Her grandmother, Martha Jane Poe, was a distant relative of writer Edgar Allan Poe. The 1878 wedding quilt that adorns the bed once kept her and husband, Waitman Worthington McDaniel, warm in the early years of their marriage.
One day while tidying up the loft bedroom, custodian John Carter noticed the cotton coverlet was rumpled. Smoothing it, he turned to go, only to hear a weird whoosshhhh behind him. Turning around, he saw the quilt had been pulled down -- and the pillow had an imprint on it.
"Like someone's head had just been on it," says Mrs. Bruhns, nodding knowingly.
Naturally, Mr. Carter didn't breathe a word of it to colleagues -- only crazy people believe in ghosts. Yet when he eventually spilled the paranormal beans a year or so later, he discovered he wasn't the only one who'd experienced something creepy in Room 328.
Mrs. Bruhns ticks off the list: A group touring the room in the mid-'90s smelled fresh bread baking in the brick fireplace (which hasn't been used since the 1940s). Another group found the baby cradle rocking when they entered the room, even though the sleeping area is roped off from the public. Others have felt cold spots or seen candles suddenly flare up. A psychic saw a woman with her hair pulled back and wearing an apron.
Did we mention the room is always locked?
Spookier still, says Mrs. Bruhns, was the "corn saga."
Dried ears of corn she'd hung on a peg to the left of the first-floor fireplace one day inexplicably fell to the floor, sending kernels flying in all directions. They'd been firmly secured to the 4-inch-long piece of wood, "so there's no way an animal could have done it," says Mrs. Bruhns.
Two weeks later, it happened again.
Once word got around, people started following Mr. Carter into the room.
Still, Mrs. Bruhns wasn't convinced the room was haunted -- until a photograph taken of her grandmother at age 16 mysteriously got cracked. It had been carefully wrapped inside a piece of cloth and placed inside a dresser drawer for protection during some repair work on the room's wide plank floors. It's now displayed on a table next to the bed, beside her grandfather's spectacles and Bible.
More recently, custodian Floyd Clawson, who's responsible for cleaning the room during daylight hours and always locks the door behind him, admits -- rather reluctantly -- to having seen a dark shadow near the bed while he was climbing the stairs.
"It came out of the room and disappeared in front of me," he recalls.
Some people believe him, others don't. But fellow custodian Ruth Mullen, who was a half step behind him, is sure he's telling the truth.
"When he turned, I saw his face," she says. "Floyd doesn't startle, so it had to have been something."
She pauses, and shoots a nervous smile. "You just feel a sense sometimes."
Mrs. Bruhns has an inkling as to who the spirit might be (Grandma, of course), and why she would bother to visit. When Martha Jane Poe died in 1936 -- in Mrs. Bruhns' bed, no less -- the farm she spent most of her life on in Grafton, W.Va., was gone and her children were dispersed.
"I think spirits go where things are important to them," she says.
With that in mind, Mrs. Bruhns a few years back decided to spend the night at the foot of the rope bed in a sleeping bag. After settling into the darkness, she hollered this invitation to the Great Beyond:
"I'm here, Grandma! I'm all alone now if you want to contact me."
Apparently, she did.
As Mrs. Bruhns was drifting off to sleep, she heard the swish of material above her two times. Then, something crashed to the floor beside her head. Too scared to move, she lay for several long moments, waiting, waiting, waiting for ... well, the courage to turn on her flashlight. Scanning the room, she discovered a water bottle she'd placed in her overnight bag had fallen off a chair to the floor. A coincidence? She thinks not.
"Grandma, you can have this damn room!," she recalls shouting, before packing up and heading home to her husband.
Maxine Bruhns will give guided tours from 6 to 8 tonight of the Early American Room (Room 328, on the third floor) in Pitt's Cathedral of Learning, Fifth Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. To schedule a visit on another day, call 412-624-6000.
Gretchen McKay can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1419.