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Explore history at the Cathedral of Learning

A view of the Turkish Room depicts detailed paintings and woodwork.
A view of the Turkish Room depicts detailed paintings and woodwork.
© 2014 Suzanne Brodsky

Step back in time to another place, another century, another continent. Long Islanders who wish to travel this summer can take a trip to the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Located on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, this Gothic-style building houses 29 different rooms, all architecturally designed in a manner that reflects various countries. From floor to ceiling, you will stand in utter amazement as you see the beauty and culture that surrounds you. Each room tells a story about its people and the great history it represents.

The rooms are referred to as Nationality Rooms or Heritage Rooms. The design of each room ties specifically with the University in that each one is designed in a time period before 1787. This is the year the University of Pittsburgh was founded.

Your journey begins with a stop at the Information Center. While you are there, you can rent an audiotape, which is used as a self-guided tour for each room you visit. Attached to the audiotape is a key. This key is used to unlock all the doors to the rooms, as they are too unique to leave unlocked and open to the public. Upon first entering the rooms, you feel as if you are walking into a museum. Enchanting and awe-inspiring, these rooms are all functional classrooms. Take note of everything around you. Each doorknob that opens the room is designed with special significance to the country it represents. Look up above the doorway and you will see a stone sculpture built into the wall that represents that country. This is the only spot where a political representation might be displayed. Otherwise, each room is designed solely on the basis of culture and heritage. Art, music, language and history are all displayed in symbolic representation throughout the rooms. Some rooms have glass showcases with small dolls and trinkets on display. There are chalkboards hidden behind a moveable partition in each classroom. Some rooms may even be in use while you are taking your self-guided tour. The rooms are also used for lectures, social events and other functions that take place periodically throughout the year. Rooms are decorated in honor of various holidays that are indigenous to that particular country and celebrated on campus.

Each room was designed and built by artists and architects that formed a “Room Committee”. These people were from the country they represented, but they lived in the Pittsburgh area. Construction began in 1938, and rooms are still being designed and built today. The Room Committees raised the funds to build the rooms. Some countries contributed funds as well, to ensure their room’s authenticity. Once completed, the University maintains the upkeep. Fundraisers and nationality room scholarships are then put into place to help send teachers and students to study abroad.

Among the rooms included in the Cathedral are the Chinese, Greek, Hungarian and German Rooms. These are located on the first floor. The third floor contains rooms including the Armenian, Swiss and Austrian Rooms. The second floor was originally designated for rooms dealing with the history of Pennsylvania. Third floor rooms have a self-guided audiotape built into the room, so no need to use the hand-held device. The African Heritage Room is one of the most impressive rooms to enter, with seats the color of muted mauve against a white background of intricate designs carved into the walls. Maps depicting ancient and modern Africa hang on the inside of the doors that enclose the chalkboard. Wooden seats in the middle of the floor represent chieftain stools. The wooden lectern displays African designs carved with great intricacy, providing a feel of culture, insight and higher learning.

Only two rooms are unavailable for actual use – the Early American Room and the Syrian-Lebanon Room. The latter being so delicate and irreplaceable, that it was thought best to block it off from actual use. Both rooms are viewable through a glass door.

The Nationality Rooms is unlike anything you could imagine. Whether you go for a vacation, attend as a student, or teach there as part of faculty, these rooms truly make you stop, look and think. Become a history buff for a day! A full afternoon’s activity awaits all those who enter the Cathedral of Learning.

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