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Foes, lack of funds may scrub Cathedral of Learning cleaning

By Bill Zlatos
Sunday, July 6, 2003

Hold the hoses.
Some fans of the Cathedral of Learning would rather bathe it in light than in baking soda.

University of Pittsburgh officials last month announced plans to scrub the building with baking soda to remove a black, 70-year-old coat of industrial pollution. The project won’t start unless they can raise $3.5 million to pay for it.

“I love the cathedral the way it is because I’m so aware of the history of the grass-roots people through the Nationality Rooms,” said E. Maxine Bruhns, director of the Nationality Rooms Program.

She said many people who built the Nationality Rooms in the 1920s worked in the steel mills.

“The steel heritage is exemplified by the dark and light portions of the building,” Bruhns said, “and to clean it just to be spanking clean is not a good reason unless it’s a detriment to the stone.”

Cliff Davidson, an environmental engineer at Carnegie Mellon University, also opposes the artificial cleaning. Having studied erosion on the cathedral for the National Park Service, he prefers to let Mother Nature do her own work.

“Every time it rains, the building gets a tiny bit cleaner, and I’ve been watching that process over the last 10 years,” he said. “I rather like the way the cathedral looks now.”

Davidson has found that changes in the color of the building reflect differences in wind flow patterns and the angle of the rain.

“It’s almost a teaching instrument for the forces of nature,” Bruhns said.

Whiter spots have been scrubbed by wind-driven rain over the years. But the darker spots in nooks and crannies could take centuries to clean naturally if they can be cleaned at all, Davidson said.

“Yeah, he’s right,” countered Al Novak, Pitt’s interim vice chancellor of institutional advancement. “How long do you wait it out?”

Doris Dyen, director of cultural conservation for the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, has mixed emotions about the cleaning.

Speaking for herself, not her organization, she appreciates how many buildings in the city are being spruced up.

“At the same time,” she said, “you can lose a little bit of a sense of what Pittsburgh was like for 100 years when all the buildings were showing the effects of the 24-hour-a-day operation of the steel mills in the area.”

She favors polling residents — especially the children who sent their dimes to build the cathedral, if they’re still alive.

G. Alec Stewart, dean of the University Honors College, would take a different tack. He would rather light the building at night instead of cleaning it.

“It would make a stunning addition to the night skyline of Pittsburgh if we were able to illuminate it as significant monuments are in other major cities,” he said, comparing it to the Washington Monument.

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has not taken a position on the cathedral. But foundation President Arthur Ziegler said, “I think the building is handsome as it is. We have a much stronger feeling that the building should be illuminated at night.”

Bruhns also supports illumination. She said she talked to a French lighting engineer two years ago about illuminating the Cathedral. He estimated it would cost at least $1 million for design and installation of fixtures without cables.

“The illumination of the tower is important because it was always considered a beacon of higher education and learning,” she said. “It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than cleaning.”

Novak shrugs off the to-clean-or-not-to-clean dilemma.

“It’s hard to say,” he said. “Everybody looks at it and says that it has charm. I guess that’s a personal taste question.”

Bill Zlatos can be reached at or (412) 320-7828.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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