The Cathedral, gleaming in the sunshine, is the tallest educational building in the U.S.
By Bill Schackner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Let's be honest here. The place is absolutely mammoth.
That's why the University of Pittsburgh's 42-story Cathedral of Learning -- thrusting skyward higher than any other classroom building in the Western Hemisphere — long has attracted a familiar set of adjectives to describe its Indiana limestone physique.
Towering. Hulking. Imposing. Even majestic.
But of late, some on the sprawling campus that, over the years has grown more female in its student composition, have taken to calling it something else — "Cathy," apparently short for cathedral. To put it mildly, reviews are mixed.
Make no mistake, some clearly like this new, chummier depiction of the landmark campus structure, like the Facebook user who added blond locks to a photo with the words "New hairdo," and others who have drawn dozens of Facebook likes with pictures captioned "Cathy is looking so fine today," "She's always beautiful,” and, "Studying isn't so bad when Cathy is there to encourage you."
Others clearly are struggling with the change.
"Stop calling the Cathedral of Learning the Cathy. It's stupid and it sounds weak," tweeted @Butor11.
"The term Cathy in reference to the Cathedral of Learning is nails on a chalkboard to me," tweeted @CoachsWifeASU, a parody account whose "Dream job Next Exit" photo pokes fun at the departure of former head football coach Todd Graham to Arizona State University.
Are there masses held in the Cathedral? It's not being disrespectful to call it Cathy even if so. https://t.co/69iSlSVplG
Still another, @JoeBullBoyer, said peers were missing the point. "We don't call the Statue of Liberty 'Libby.'''
The Cathedral stands 535 feet tall as both a national historic landmark and one of Pittsburgh's most visible skyscrapers. Its vertical reach among academic structures is eclipsed only by an 800-foot building at Moscow State University, according to Pitt.
Pitt officials for years have argued, however, that their skyscraper ought to be treated as top dog since a sizable part of the Moscow structure's top is uninhabitable.
The Gothic Revival Cathedral has some 2,000 rooms. It is home to numerous academic offices and classrooms, including the Honors College, eateries, plus the offices of Pitt chancellor Patrick Gallagher and other top administrators and the board of trustees.
But its best known feature internationally are Pitt's Nationality Rooms, classrooms bearing the designs of various countries.
Then-Chancellor John Bowman had the inspiration for the Cathedral. According to Pitt records, he wrote in 1921 of erecting a "high building, a tower -- a tower singing upward that would tell the epic story of Pittsburgh." A few years later, he first referred to the building by its name, according to Robert C. Alberts, author of "Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh 1787-1987."
Construction began in 1926 and took 11 years. It was aided by some 97,000 schoolchildren who donated dimes in return for certificates saying they helped build it.
Over the generations, it has become a symbol of Pitt's scholarly and economic aspirations and, some would say, the place's masculinity.
The Cathedral has attracted celebrities and world figures, including Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev, who visited it in 1959. Others who have dropped by include author Alex Haley, Britain's Prince Andrew and, during the 2009 G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who met with students.
On behalf of old heads everywhere, we will concede "Cathy" if Sweet Caroline gets moved to ealier part of games https://t.co/duxIRj7cVh
A nickname won’t change the building’s history and impact, said E. Maxine Bruhns, 92, director of the The Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange Programs, who has worked in the building for 50 years. ”They can call it whatever they want. It really doesn’t bother me,” she said.
On the Oakland campus, where women account for more than half the 28,649 students, the Cathedral isn’t the only place known by a shortened name. The Petersen Events Center is oft referred to as "The Pete." A venue in the William Pitt Union is called Nordy's Place, in honor of former Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg.
The mainstreaming of the Cathedral's new nickname continued with a 2015 article in the student newspaper, The Pitt News, headlined "Trek to the Top: Cathy Climbers." The first-person piece by staff writer Lauren Rosenblatt involved those who follow a campus tradition by ascending the Cathedral's stairs.
"The 764 steps in the Cathedral of Learning break down into 36 flights of approximately 21 steps each,'" she wrote. "I know this, because I’ve climbed every one of them."
Bill Schackner: email@example.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BachacknerPG.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.