The Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh

United States 2005

We were driving through Fort Pitt Tunnel. In the distance a bright white light signalled its end. The light grew larger, and brighter, and we could make out different hues and shapes. Slowly the grey concrete gave way to the light, and when we burst out of the tunnel downtown Pittsburgh was waiting for us. The tall spires of the skyscrapers were hemmed in to a triangle by the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers and Point State Park. Another city full of a relaxed hustle-and-bustle, Pittsburgh was busy without feeling pressured. We drove through downtown and out to the university district of Oakland — for we were on a mission.

The University of Pittsburgh is home to the fabulous thirty-story gothic tower, the Cathedral of Learning. Don’t let the name fool you: this is a secular academic building with twenty or so ground-floor lecture rooms known collectively as the Nationality Rooms. These rooms open onto a cloistered walkway around the beautiful Commons Room (which looks like a mediaeval church complete with three-story gothic arches); each one was furnished in the 1930s by donations from the country it is named and themed after. There is the Yugoslav room, the Russian room, the Serbian room, the Scottish room, and on and on. Each room is traditionally furnished and filled with metaphor, myths, national history, and a certain sense of pride. We took a ninety-minute tour around the rooms and revelled in taking jokey photos in tweed jackets, acting out classes, etc. If anyone finds themselves in Pittsburgh I strongly recommend taking some time to visit this understated gem.

A short visit downtown later and we were back on the road to Washington, DC. We wanted to stop at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater but unfortunately it was closed and so it remains undone on my mental to-do list. Pennsylvania and Maryland disappeared into the rear-view mirror and we arrived in the US capital, Washington, DC. We were headed for a hotel called the Swiss Inn — which my guide book had described as ‘friendly’ — in the hope of a room. I would certainly not describe the conversation we had a friendly:

‘Waddya want?’

‘Do you have any rooms available?’

‘No. Please leave.’

So sod them. We found ourselves a simple place a little out of downtown quickly enough so we didn’t need them anyway. And tomorrow I get to see the Smithsonian museums, the Charters of Freedom, and all kinds of exciting things that can be found in Washington, DC. I can’t wait!