1926-1935: Cathedral of Learning construction
Where today towers one of Pittsburgh’s most recognizable landmarks once stood a little house.
In our archive, we found a copy of a 1929 Christmas card from Edward B. Lee, whose home once sat squarely where the University of Pittsburgh built the Cathedral of Learning in the 1920s and ’30s. Mr. Lee lost his property when the Cathedral went up, and he didn’t hesitate to express his dissatisfaction with the construction.
The card features a sketch of a two-story home with a smoking chimney. It would be pleasant if it weren’t superimposed over a photograph of the towering Cathedral, then mostly scaffolding, under construction. The card bids the house adieu.
“Our first Xmas card was made in this little house in nineteen-nineteen,” it reads. “Good-bye, little happy house, good-bye.”
Today, the Cathedral stands at 42 stories and 535 feet tall. As you can imagine, putting the building together wasn’t easy, and Press photographs from the 1920s and ’30s show us the evolution of the now-famed building.
The building process was pretty drawn out. As Pitt administrators faced budgetary hurdles in the midst of the Great Depression, the Cathedral’s construction stopped and started. Although Pitt’s chancellor commissioned the project in 1921, the project didn’t conclude for another 13 years.
Construction began in 1926, thanks in part to the 97,000 local school children who each donated 10 cents to the effort (see our copy of the certificate one student received in exchange for her help). The steel part of the structure rose in 1929, but a shortage of funding meant that construction would have to pause before its 1937 dedication.
For years, scaffolding towered over Oakland. In this June 1930 photo, about half of the building looks familiar, but the rest is less pretty. Another Press photo, this time from 1935, shows us that workers finished the middle floors of the building’s exterior first. And although Pitt had polished most of the Cathedral, weeds and dirt scattered the ground around it, a far cry from what the campus looks like today.
With that in mind, it’s not too surprising that the years of construction evoked a negative response from residents like Mr. Lee.
Still, there were optimists. James C. Boudreau, the art director of Pittsburgh schools, proclaimed in a February 1928 issue of The Press that the Cathedral, then still under construction, would “express in tangible beauty the real spirit of Pittsburgh, the city that stands for steel and iron plus.”
“Do not spend your thoughts trying to seek out undesirable features that may come with this creative venture,” he warned. “Some few of them may even become realities yet we can be confident that they will be so thoroughly engulfed by myriads of desirable features that they will soon be as nothing.”