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Pitt aims to preserve the Cathedral of Learning

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Bill Zlatos
Monday, May 28, 2007

Pitt is “redding up” the Cathedral of Learning.
Workers from Forest Hills-based Cost Co. are hosing down the University of Pittsburgh icon to remove 70 years of soot.

“We feel better when we’re redd up,” said Albert J. Novak, Jr., vice chancellor for institutional advancement.

Since 2000, Cost and Pitt have experimented with everything from baking soda to chemicals to remove the grime. They settled on a mixture of water and recycled glass, an abrasive as fine as powdered sugar, because it is the least harmful to the workers, lawn and plants and does not react with the iron in the building’s Indiana limestone.

Forty-two Cost employees have been working on the project since March. Some use pressure washers to blast the 42-story building at 70 pounds of pressure per square inch.
Others replace broken or cracked stone and repoint the missing or loose mortar. About 40 percent of the building has been cleaned.

The idea is not just to give the building a bath, but to restore it.

“It’s really to save the building for another 100 years,” university architect Park L. Rankin said.

The project will cost $4.8 million. The university plans to pay for the restoration with donations or its own money. Anyone who gives at least $1,000 will become a member of the Cathedral Preservation Society.

“We’re coming at it from a legacy perspective — preserving the cathedral for future generations,” Novak said.

When university officials first considered scrubbing the building, some preservationists objected, contending the soot was part of the city’s industrial heritage.

Historical or not, the soot was harming the stone, Rankin said.

“It doesn’t allow the stone to breathe. It clogs the pores.”

In deference to the preservationists, the university is leaving a 3- by 2-foot section of stone black, behind the Fifth Avenue entrance.

Besides hurting the stone, the soot hid beautiful details, such as the cast aluminum window spandrels with molded medallions made by Alcoa. The grime hid damage, such as fallen ornamental spires that will be replaced.

Work on the restoration is expected to be finished Sept. 28.

Cost’s crews normally work from the top down, but are working from the bottom up on this project. That’s because they don’t want to tangle with the peregrine falcons and their chicks roosting on the 39th floor.

“If the falcons see us, they’ll try to do damage to the workmen,” company owner Corky Cost said.

The young falcons are expected to leave June 21, and the crews will be able to clean above the 25th floor.

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

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