The Cathedral of Learning, a 535-foot Gothic Revival tower completed in the 1930s on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, stands as the tallest educational building in the Western Hemisphere.
(The only taller university building in the world is the main building of Moscow State University
, in Russia.)
Its origin story is full of soaring rhetoric about the symbolism of erecting a towering monument to the pursuit of education.
Practically, the 42-story tower helped solve campus space issues, as enrollment spiked after World War I. But a university account
of the tower’s history focuses just as much on the meaning of its design: a “visible inspiration to all who approached the city,” a building that would “carry the message that education was the result of aspiring to great heights,” a structure whose “sweeping proportions would symbolize the spirit and achievement of Pittsburgh.”
“They shall find wisdom here and faith - in steel and stone - in character and thought - they shall find beauty - adventure - and moments of high victory,” said John G. Bowman, the 10th chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh. He was the driving force behind the Cathedral’s creation.
One of the most striking things about the Cathedral’s history, though, is this: It was paid for, in part, by the dimes of more than 97,000 local schoolchildren who were encouraged to “buy a brick” and, in turn, received certificates designating them “Builders of the Cathedral of Learning.”
In fact, the university’s public campaign to finance the construction—through schoolchildren as well as local industries, philanthropists, and other adults — has been recognized as one of the first modern fundraising drives, according to an article
published by Pitt in 2007, 70 years after the Cathedral’s dedication.
The drive for money may have had a fair amount to do with all the grandeur, too:
“According to Robert C. Alberts’ Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh, 1787-1987, (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986), the name Cathedral of Learning is thought to have been first used by Bowman at an announcement dinner on Nov. 6, 1924,” the article said. “Though Bowman is said to have disliked the name, he recognized its publicity value, especially in light of the University’s impending $10 million public fundraising campaign to finance the building’s construction.”