Pitt's Cathedral of Learning in line for a scrubbing
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Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Decades of soot and other elements have darkened and eroded the Cathedral of Learning's Indiana limestone exterior.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once strolled its cavernous halls. So have author Alex Haley, Britain's Prince Andrew and generations of regular Pittsburghers who sometimes stop mid-step to gaze at its imposing architecture.
But as impressive as the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning is, this tallest of schoolhouses in the Western Hemisphere, 42 stories high, has long made do with an image that is stained.
That's because decades of soot and other elements have darkened and eroded its Indiana limestone exterior, creating a two-tone effect running up and down the landmark skyscraper.
That will soon change.
Audio slideshow: Of steel and stone
Pitt trustees today authorized a $4.8 million project starting next month to clean and restore the building, including cracked stones and loose or missing mortar in hundreds of locations. A special pool within Pitt's $2 billion "Discover a World of Possibilities" campaign will be designated to support the work.
Today's vote by the trustees' property and facilities committee was intended to coincide with Pitt's founding 220 years ago.
"Emotionally, the Cathedral of Learning means so much to me as it does to many people," Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said. "I walk into that building every day, look up at such majestic surroundings, and I think somebody, sometime, while the building was being built, thought important work was going to be done here.
"It is a striking symbol of our high aspirations," he said.
Standing 535 feet tall, the Cathedral is both a national historic landmark and one of Pittsburgh's most visible skyscrapers. Its height among academic structures is surpassed only by an 800-foot building at Moscow State University, though Pitt officials have long said their skyscraper deserves top billing because much of the Moscow structure's upper reaches is uninhabitable.
The Gothic Revival structure has some 2,000 rooms and enough stairs to keep a marathoner in shape. It is home to numerous academic offices and classrooms, including the Honors College, eateries and a theater, plus the offices of Mr. Nordenberg and other top administrators and the board of trustees.
Most famously, though, the Cathedral is home to Pitt's 26 Nationality Rooms, classrooms bearing the designs of various countries. Over the years, the rooms have attracted celebrities and world figures, including Mr. Khrushchev, who toured in 1959.
"He didn't like the Russian room because it didn't have any symbols of his beliefs," said E. Maxine Bruhns, who directs the Nationality Rooms program. "They took him up to the early American room and he said, 'Now this is a Russian Room.' It had a big fireplace, a wooden floor, big heavy wooden beams and a carved table."
Pitt already is upgrading the Cathedral's interior with sprinklers, central air conditioning and other infrastructure work. But this is the first major exterior preservation project in its 70 years, and it will be no simple undertaking.
Pitt said part of the exterior is laden with residue of carbons, sulfur dioxides and gypsum. The deposits, if not removed, will further erode the building's architecture as they capture moisture.
The limestone will be pre-washed using pressurized water, said Joseph Fink, associate vice chancellor for facilities management. A cleaning media made up of 100 percent recycled powdered glass will be used and then removed using pressurized water.
Pitt officials said the inert, nontoxic media has been used on the likes of Buckingham Palace in Great Britain, the Kremlin in Russia and St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
Mr. Fink said the thousands who work or attend classes daily in the Cathedral can keep their normal routines, even after scaffolding is erected.
"There's not going to be a lot of dust, moisture or anything like that. It's really going to run down the side of the building," he said. "Most of it's going to fall down to the roof below the section they're working on."
Pitt hopes to finish the work in September, a schedule that will protect Erie and Dorothy, two peregrine falcons residing atop the tower. Crews will not tackle the upper floors until the end of June after the falcons have left their nest.
University reserves will finance the work temporarily while money is being raised, said Al Novak Jr., Pitt vice chancellor for institutional advancement. An initial contribution was made by Ellen Roth, a principal of Getting to the Point Inc., and her husband, Loren Roth, a professor and administrator at Pitt.
The Cathedral was the vision of then-Chancellor John Bowman. 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 school children who donated dimes in return for certificates saying they helped build it.
One of them, Emma Rose, now 83, went on to graduate from Pitt in 1945 and now lives in Hartford, Conn. "It makes me feel good that I did make a little contribution," she said.
First Published February 28, 2007 12:00 am