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Project will restore Pitt’s iconic Cathedral

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Andrew Conte
Wednesday, February 28, 2007

When she was a second-grader 80 years ago, Alice Sapienza Donnelly wondered each week what to do with the dime her Italian immigrant father gave her.
She could buy 10 penny candies, or drop the coin into a classroom collection jar to “buy” one stone in the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, then being built in Oakland.

“Every week, I would finger that dime,” she said Tuesday. “Invariably, the stone won out. I always dropped the dime into that jar.”

Her stone and all the others in the 42-story building’s iconic facade are due to be cleaned, university officials said yesterday.

Trustees voted this morning and approved a $4.8 million project to remove decades of grime from the Indiana limestone exterior, fix mortar joints, and replace rusty fasteners. The vote coincides with the 220th anniversary of Pitt’s founding.

The university tried to kick off a similar campaign four years ago, but ran into opposition from faculty members and historians who argued for keeping the building in its current state — black stains and all.

Construction on the cathedral started in 1926, and it collected soot and grime by the time it was dedicated in 1937. Much of the dirt came from Pittsburgh’s steel mills and coke plants, so it tells a story about the city’s industrial past, said those opposed to the cleansing.

E. Maxine Bruhns, director of the cathedral’s Nationality Rooms, fought the cleaning in 2003. But yesterday, Bruhns said she would not try to derail the project this time. University officials told her the grime could be causing lasting damage, she said.

“If it’s doing damage, let it go,” she said.

The university will pay for the cleaning from its reserves, and replace the money with donations to an ongoing $2 billion capital campaign, said spokeswoman Maddy Ross. Officials are planning to celebrate the cathedral’s unique history as it gets restored.

“This will be an easy one,” Ross said. “There’s so much romance and attachment to this building.”

The scrubbing is scheduled to last from March to September, starting from the ground up.

That goes against the rules of gravity, but work must accommodate the life cycle of the peregrine falcons, Erie and Dorothy, who live on the upper floors. The birds typically have fledglings in the spring, and they should outgrow the nest by the end of June.

Portions of the building will soak for 24 to 48 hours, then be washed with pressurized water. Workers will clean the stone with powdered glass.

Sapienza Donnelly, 87, of Forest Hills, went on to attend the university, earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1974 and a master’s degree in communications nine years later. She taught public speaking and parliamentary rhetoric at the university for 28 years.

She said her 10-cent-a-week contributions for the cathedral’s construction was a good investment.

When the building was finished, she went to see it with her father and asked him which stone her class purchased. It was the one all the way at the top, he said.

“I looked up and almost fell backward on the lawn,” she said. “I was so thrilled.”

Andrew Conte can be reached at or (412) 320-7835.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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