This Week in Pittsburgh History: Pitt Commits to Building the Cathedral of Learning

It would take 11 years for this Pittsburgh landmark to get from groundbreaking to dedication.
Cathedral Jul21


There was a fair amount of skepticism when University of Pittsburgh Chancellor John Bowman suggested building the world’s tallest educational building between Fifth and Forbes Avenue in Oakland early in the 20th Century. With classrooms overflowing from a postwar enrollment boom, Bowman eventually convinced the board of trustees to approve the construction of the 42-story skyscraper that would be dubbed the Cathedral of Learning. A $10 million public fundraising campaign was launched to finance construction.

General contractor Stone & Webster broke ground in 1926. The first class was held in the unfinished building in 1931, and after delays caused by the Great Depression, the neo-Gothic tower was dedicated in 1937. Pitt proudly boasted the world’s tallest educational building — until Moscow State University surpassed it in 1953. (The claim was modified to “tallest educational building in the free world.”)



There are 2,000 rooms in the Cathedral, but the most celebrated are the Nationality Rooms, classrooms that serve as mini-museums representing cultures from around the world. The cathedral also houses traditional classrooms, academic and administrative offices, libraries, computer labs, a theater, a print shop and a food court.

By 1969, the Cathedral of Learning — lovingly called Cathy by Pitt alum — was 37 years old and showing its age. Decades of soot and other elements had darkened and eroded its Indiana limestone exterior, creating a two-tone effect running up and down the landmark skyscraper. In 2007, the university spent $4.8 million to wash away the soot, fix mortar joints and replace rusty fasteners — giving the building an entirely new look.

The Cathedral was designated a National Landmark in 1975 by the National Park Service. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Learn more about the city’s past at The Odd, Mysterious & Fascinating History of Pittsburgh Facebook page.

Categories: This Week in Pgh History