Last Updated on February 18, 2020 by Jeremy
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Pitt's Cathedral of Learning is one of the most beautiful university buildings in the country.
Ignoring the fact that this college building is the only skyscraper in Oakland and its main lobby resembles a European cathedral mixed with Hogwarts, Pitt's flagship building houses one other treasure worth exploring during a visit: the Nationality Rooms.
Let's go to the last place you'd expect to visit in Pittsburgh– back to school!
Embracing Cultures from Around the World
Since the building's inauguration in the early 1900s, one of the goals of Pitt's leadership was to engage local international communities to be a part of the university. This was achieved through sponsorships to build classrooms themed as historical rooms from different time periods and countries from around the world.
Not only that, the designs of the rooms reflect historical classrooms from at or before 1787- the year Pitt was founded. So when you explore the rooms, keep in mind that almost all of them are designed to reflect 18th-century classrooms (if not significantly older)!
This effort has been underway for over 80 years, and to show for it the Cathedral of Learning is now home to approximately 30 unique rooms with several more scheduled to open in the future.
An Audio Guide Tour of the Rooms
Unless you are a Pitt student with a scheduled class in one of the rooms, you are left with only a few options to explore this unique attraction. They are:
- Explore the free rooms on the 3rd floor and ignore the paid rooms on the 1st.
- Take a self-guided tour on the 1st floor with supplied audio guides (~$4 per person) and visit the 3rd before/after.
- Schedule a group tour with a guide if you have ten or more people interested in a visit.
We opted for the self-guided tour with audio guide and spent an afternoon strolling through the different themed rooms on our own.
A Trip Around the World at the Cathedral of Learning
Overall, the Nationality Rooms at the Cathedral of Learning range from the basic designs found in ancient monasteries, to the incredibly ornate rooms from the palaces of kings, and everything in between. The flexibility of what is defined as a “classroom” gives the designers of each room freedom to let their idea flourish with minimal constraints, resulting in a unique experience behind every door.
Likewise, as the construction of the rooms is funded through a sponsorship model, this can drastically alter the level of design work that is done on a room to room basis (some of the more recent, very ornate rooms have exceeded $500,000 and make others seem, well, a bit average by comparison). Ignoring that, it is very easy to get lost in the rooms as you enjoy the incredible details and features that adorn the walls, ceilings, and floors of this unique attraction.
Our only true complaint would be that as we progressed through our self-guided tour we found ourselves forgetting to turn on the audio guide in every room as many of the tracks last much longer than is needed to enjoy the designs. Instead, we often found ourselves glancing at the placard at the front of each room which outlines the same material in a much more concise format that worked with our speed.
The paid, self-guided tour of the Nationality Rooms covers just the rooms featured on the first floor, roughly 20 or so classrooms in all, and the newer additions on the third floor are free to the public for exploration when not in use. If you aren't necessarily interested in taking the self-guided tour, you really should take a quick look at the free rooms during your next trip to Oakland to get a quick taste of what the Nationality Rooms are all about.
One thing is for certain– although the rooms are beautiful, I do not envy the students who have to sit in the uncomfortable wood, stone, and concrete seats that are often found within the classrooms. Thankfully for us, we get to appreciate this one from a distance.
Pitt students, you may need to bring a cushion.
While visiting the Cathedral of Learning, be sure to take the elevator up to the Honors College on the 36th floor. This is the highest publicly accessible floor in the Cathedral and has a stunning view of Pittsburgh when the weather is clear!
The Nationality Rooms at Pitt's Cathedral of Learning are open on weekends during the school year and throughout the week when school is not in session. As such, checking the website to confirm the Cathedral of Learning hours is highly recommended as this may change. The audio guide tour costs $4 per person (as of publication of this post) and lasts about ninety minutes with a visit to the free rooms on the third floor. Christmas at the Cathedral of Learning is also quite special, click the previous link if you are visiting during the holiday season!