During a recent visit to Pittsburgh, I visited the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. At 535 feet, it’s the tallest university building in the nation and dominates the skyline east of downtown. Despite its name, it’s more skyscraper than cathedral. It’s also an historical and architectural landmark, built between 1926 and 1937 as an Art Deco “cake” with Gothic Revival “frosting.” For those of us working at historic house museums, what’s most interesting are the Nationality Rooms, a series of 29 classrooms on the first and third floors designed and furnished to represent different nations and ethnicities.
The classrooms vary in size but each have student seating, a table or podium for the professor, and are decorated in a style that represents a specific nation or ethnicity, such as English, Greek, Swiss, and Chinese. Most of the furniture is modern and made specifically for the classroom, but occasionally you’ll find historic architectural elements (such as a door), paintings, or objects. Although not strictly period rooms (because they don’t intend to represent a specific period of time), they do mimic the idea of creating an immersive educational environment that developed about the same time at museums and historic sites. It was during the early 20th century that places like Colonial Williamsburg and Greenfield Village were conceived and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum or Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art installed their trend-setting period rooms. What’s not open to the public at the Cathedral of Learning are several other rooms on the upper floors, such as the Braun Room or the Croghan-Schenley Ballroom, that are created with architectural fragments, sometimes entire rooms, from historic houses in the region.
Next time you visit Pittsburgh, you’ll want to visit the Cathedral of Learning and see these rooms for yourself. It’s fun to imagine taking a class in one of them and wondering if a similar immersive experience would improve the visitor experience at an historic site. They offer guided tours but you can also see them on your own when they’re not in use (and yes, they’re still actively used as classrooms and more are being planned).