Located on the University of Pittsburgh campus, the Pitt Nationality Rooms immerse you in the cultures of the people who left their native lands to make Pittsburgh their new home.
Step into the Japanese Room, for example, and you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to a mid-18th century merchant’s home in the Osaka-Kyoto region. Or, find yourself in a first century house of assembly, complete with a mosaic of Jewish festivals, when you enter the Israel Room.
History of the Pitt Nationality Rooms
The concept for the 30 rooms, which are open for self-guided audio tours when school is not in session, dates back to the 1920s. Then Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman wanted to encourage more immigrants to attend the university. He invited diverse community groups to design classrooms in the Cathedral of Learning that reflected their heritage.
A few rules served as guidelines. The rooms could only contain cultural—no political—elements; could display no living person; and had to represent a period pre-dating the university’s founding in 1787. Initially, only nations diplomatically recognized by the United States could design rooms, but the scope has since broadened to represent people of a singular heritage, such as African.
Exploring the Pitt Nationality Rooms
Because I was on a press trip, I was part of a group tour (you can arrange a group tour for 10 or more online), so I can’t comment on the self-guided audio tour. Whether you tour as part of a group, on your own, or virtually online, you’ll be wowed by the rooms.
We started by peering through a window into the Syrian-Lebanon Room, the only nationality room that was an actual room elsewhere. Originally a library built in a Damascus home in 1782, it was moved into the Cathedral of Learning in 1941. The room features ornately painted walls and an old copper lamp from a mosque. I could almost see a Muslim family seated on cushions covering the red and white marble benches.
Next up was the Irish Room, one of my favorites because of its arched stained glass windows paying homage to three great Irish teachers. I loved the way the pastels offset the bright colors of the featured block. Wolf hound heads top the ornately-carved chairs. I took note of the cornerstone near the blackboard. Behind it was a container holding earth from both northern and southern Ireland.
The Romanian Room is impressive, in part, because of the story behind it. Soon after the committee began planning the room, the Depression hit. Without funds to continue, the committee was forced to turn to the Romanian government, who gifted them with a Byzantine mosaic from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Ironically, the mosaic, which hangs on the rear wall of the classroom, was displayed on the floor at the fair.
Like the Romanian Room, the Armenian Room is designed to resemble a monastery—specifically a 10th century monastic library. It’s also the only all-stone nationality room. (Twenty-two tons of metal braces were required under the floor to support the massive weight of the diagonal arches and other stone.) I liked the suspended light fixtures meant to suggest the oil containers with burning wicks that would have illuminated the ancient library.
African Heritage Room
If you’re a student (yes, these are working classrooms), you don’t want to be late for a class in the African Heritage Room, the only room representing an entire continent. While the chieftain chairs in the middle of the room lend authenticity to the 18th century courtyard, they don’t have back support. Look for the carving of the crocodile eating a fish, meant to symbolize God’s dominance over man.
We also stepped inside the sloped-ceiling Swedish Room. I liked the murals, painted with subtle humor, in this room. For example, the angel Gabriel in one of the three ceiling panels has two left feet. In another panel, Justice has removed her blindfold and used it to hold her scales. The mural on the rear wall shows the three wise men, one headed in the wrong direction.
Another of my favorites was the Greek Room. Designed to reflect 5th century Athens, the room boasts columns and plasters carved from the same stone used to build the Parthenon. I loved the bright colors painted by two Greek artists, by hand, on the ceiling, marble, and trim around the door. Above the chalkboard, a quotation from Homer’s Iliad reads, “Strive always for nobility and to excel among men.”
Tours of the Pitt Nationality Rooms
I only had the opportunity to see a fraction of the Pitt Nationality Rooms because school was in session. As I mentioned above, these are working classrooms, so when school is in session, most of the classrooms are in use. That’s why the rooms are only available for tours on weekends during the school year.
The classrooms may also be closed on certain weekdays during the summer when the university holds PittStart, its orientation program for incoming freshman. Before you go, no matter what time of the year, check the website for tour availability.
If you’re in the area, you can also tour the rooms during the annual open house, held the first Sunday in December. During the free event, costumed guides are on hand in each room to answer questions. You will also be able to enjoy cultural performances that occur every 15 minutes in the Cathedral of Learning’s Commons Room.
When You Visit the Pitt Nationality Rooms
The Pitt Nationality Rooms are located on the University of Pittsburgh campus in the Cathedral of Learning at 4200 Fifth Avenue. The charge for a tour is: Adults $4.00 and youths (6-18 years) $2.00. Call (412) 624-6000 or visit the Pitt University website for more information. Be sure to check out more of our suggestions on Wander With Wonder for your visit to Pittsburgh, including where to stay and explore.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a tour for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.