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Pitt wants to clean Cathedral

By Bill Zlatos
Thursday, June 19, 2003

After more than 60 years of wearing a coat of soot, the Cathedral of Learning may get scrubbed if the University of Pittsburgh can raise $3.5 million.
“When people come from other places, they say, ‘What a magnificent building. It would be great if you can clean it,” said Ana Guzman, associate vice chancellor of facilities management.

And the cleanser that Pitt would use to remove that grime would be the same stuff people use to bake a batch of cookies or brush their teeth: Baking soda.

The cleaning idea is part of Pitt’s $1 billion capital campaign to spruce up the campus. Since the summer of 1995, it has spent $516.4 million renovating buildings. The university already has removed the dirt from Thackeray Hall, Schenley Quadrangle, the Stephen Foster Memorial and the old Masonic Temple.

Now it wants to hose down its most visible building.
“It’s the flagship of the University of Pittsburgh,” Guzman said. “It’s the physical identity of the university in Oakland. You can see it for miles away. It’s a national monument.”

Pitt gets no argument about the significance of the Cathedral from architecture lovers.

“It’s a landmark to education well-known throughout the nation as well as architecture lovers around the world,” said Louise Sturgess, executive director of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

Sturgess endorses cleaning the Cathedral but said some Pittsburgh buildings look better in black. She cites Trinity Cathedral, Downtown, as an example.

“The sandstone has absorbed all the Pittsburgh soot and grime since the building was constructed in 1870 and has turned a rich velvety black,” she said of Trinity Cathedral. “It’s a wonderful contrast to the neighboring buildings clad in terra cotta.”

Cleaning the Cathedral of Learning will help preserve it, said Angelique Bamberg, the city’s historic preservation planner. The Cathedral was built to last 300 years.

“Soot is not good for masonry,” Bamberg said. “It’s pollution, dirt and grime that has built up over many years from many sources.”

She said Pitt would have to apply to the Historic Review Commission to remove the dirt, but the panel routinely approves such requests.

The Cathedral of Learning, named by a draftsman, was built between 1926 and 1937 under then-Chancellor John Bowman. He wanted to construct the biggest classroom building in the world as a symbol of aspiration for Pittsburgh’s working class, said architecture historian Walter C. Kidney.

“They could go to the University of Pittsburgh, get an education and improve their life,” he said.

Although the Mellons donated the 14-acre site, 97,000 schoolchildren anted up a dime each to help pay for construction. The building was built from Indiana limestone and a steel frame encased in concrete.

The 42-story building houses 2,000 classrooms and occupies 9 million cubic feet of space.

The Cathedral, Kidney said, is bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. That pyramid sits on 13 acres and is 450 feet tall. The Cathedral occupies 14 acres and rises 535 feet.

Pitt has a lot of scrubbing to do.

The university tested different methods for removing the dirt. Pitt decided against acids because they could etch the metal, and the runoff could kill grass and other vegetation.

Sandblasting also is taboo, Bamberg said. It can erode the surface of the masonry, damage the mortar that binds the blocks and erase ornamental carvings.

Pitt tested baking soda on the building and liked the results.

“It’s a mild abrasive,” Guzman said. “That’s why it works on teeth.”

A section of the building that has been cleaned reveals the tan limestone with orange streaks of iron, and silver aluminum panels that had been hidden by the soot.

No work will start on the building’s exterior until Pitt raises the $3.5 million it will cost to clean it, Guzman said.

Al Novak, interim vice chancellor of institutional advancement, and his staff are brainstorming ways to raise the money that harken back to the campaign for the building’s construction.

One popular idea is giving Pitt’s 200,000 living alumni a chance to clean a part of the building. But Pitt hasn’t decided how much an alum would have to give and what size of spot they would get to clean.

Another idea is trying to figure out what the students’ dimes from the Depression would be worth in today’s dollars and asking for that amount now.

“It’s such an inspiring story,” Novak said. “We want to do that first story justice.”

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

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633