a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Saturday, November 24, 2007


The Romanian Room in the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh is among many ornate ethnic classrooms that can be found on the first two floors of the landmark. The rooms are especially interesting to see during the holidays when volunteers dress them according to holiday traditions that are celebrated in the countries that funded their construction. Here is a story pulled from the archives of the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington, Pa.:

OAKLAND, Pa. – The knoll was little more than a scrappy plot of land where circuses set up camp during the summer when it caught the attention of a former University of Pittsburgh chancellor.

As the school’s 10th leader in 1921, John Gabbert Bowman envisioned a building so grand on the hill that it would inspire young men to remove their hats upon entering its doors. He then went looking for wealthy benefactors to underwrite his plan, many of whom thought he was out of his mind.

“The Mellons said: ‘We’ll buy the plot, but don’t ever mention the tower,” said E. Maxine Bruhns, director of the Nationality Rooms at what became a monumental Gothic building named the Cathedral of Learning.
Storm over Pitt
The high-style rooms, which have been decorated each December according to the appropriate Christmas, New Year’s or Jewish holiday traditions since they opened, have helped to make the university famous around the globe, Bruhns said. But to build the cathedral, Bowman was forced to turn to working families for the money. He realized that the sweat of immigrant workers had built Pittsburgh into an industrial giant of his era.

“Once they have a room here, they will stay and go to school here,” Bruhns said, quoting the chancellor.

The different ethnic communities responded with remarkable determination to find the money to afford only the best adornments to show off their heritage. The host of the Sunday afternoon Ukrainian radio program on WPIT put out a call for listeners to send money to honor their ancestors when the Ukraine room was being designed in the 1980s. Nearly $15,000 in donations poured in the first day, with many from women wearing babushkas, or kerchiefs, on their heads, Bruhns said.

“These mothers would cry in their kitchens with their Ukrainian music on the radios,” she said.

An artist was sent to Ukraine for a month to study how ceramic tiles were crafted to cover the stove and chimney of a nobleman’s reception room. Re-created on the third floor of the 42-story cathedral, the richly paneled Ukraine room boasts sculpted copper panels that tell the story of how the country’s culture was developed.

Eventually there would be 26 Nationality Rooms in the 535-foot tower, which took a decade to build with money coming from 17,000 adults and 97,000 schoolchildren who gave the university as little as a dime. Local industries provided the steel, heating and plumbing, concrete, glass and elevators for the steel building covered in Indiana limestone that turns 80 next year.

The rooms continue to serve as working classrooms, where visitors might encounter a cranky professor if they knock on a door and interrupt a lecture.

Typically, it takes a decade to plan and complete one room at a cost, today, of nearly $500,000. While the rooms are ornate, the holiday decorations in them are kept to a minimum and must represent traditions true to the culture.

And, while the Greeks do not mark Christmas, they honor St. Nicholas, and housewives typically bake bread at this time of year and cover it with frosted decorations that represent the family’s occupation. In the marble Greek room, a loaf of bread decorated with seashells sits on a table beside the celebrated patron saint of seaman.

Ukrainian families put candles in the loaves of bread and set them by windows as a sign that wayfaring strangers – like Joseph and Mary – are welcome in their homes.
While nearly 40,000 people tour the rooms a year, tourism promoters have called the building one of Pittsburgh’s best-kept secrets.

“We’re known abroad more than we’re known here,” Bruhns said. “People in Paris don’t go to the Eiffel Tower.”

She said new visitors with strong ethnic ties are grateful that there is someplace in the world that “perpetuates, authentically” their culture.

“It’s important to the people who grew up with the traditions,” she said.

Following is a sampling of the traditions across the globe that are celebrated in the Nationality Rooms at Pitt:

In Japan, it’s customary to place evergreen sprigs and bamboo, or kadomatsu, at the gates to homes at New Year’s. The arrangements were believed to serve as temporary shelters for the deity Kami who delivers longevity and wealth at the start of each year.

Germany claims to have started the tradition of celebrating the holidays around a Christmas tree. It began in the 720s after St. Boniface decided to take on pagan rituals by chopping down a large oak tree where people worshipped Thor, the god of thunder. It was Christmas Eve and the eldest son of a chieftain was to be sacrificed. The saint invoked a miracle by causing the oak to fall with one stroke of an ax. He pointed to a nearby evergreen and bid the hostile tribesmen to take one home as a symbol to the Christ child. He claimed the branches represented endless life.

In Scotland, it’s considered back luck to fall asleep before midnight on Christmas Eve. According to legend, people also are warned to keep a fire alive all night to keep elves from sweeping down the chimney and dancing in the ashes. To this day, most churches perpetuate the tradition by holding watch-night services on Christmas Eve.

In Ukraine, people decorate their windows with homemade spider webs. The tradition stems, in part, from the belief that the first thing the Christ child saw when he woke up in the manger were bits of dew collected on spider webs. It was his welcome to the world, according to the myth. They also decorate with didukh, or a sheaves of oats or wheat shaped with four legs to symbolize prosperity for the new year.

After Christmas Eve dinner in Sweden, the Tomte, or Christmas gnome, appears dressed like Santa Clause. The Tomte supposedly lives under the floorboards and rides a straw goat named Julbok. He passes out gifts to the well-behaved children while the goat bumps the bad kids.

In Lithuania on Christmas Eve, the house must be painstakingly cleaned before the evening meal. Fine hay is spread across the table as a reminder of the manger and it is covered with a fine white tablecloth. After dinner, the children take turns pulling out a strand of the hay. The child with the shortest straw will be the first to marry, while the sibling with the longest will enjoy a long life. The Christmas tree also is decorated with simple ornaments woven with straw.

In ancient Ireland, a winter wren was driven from a bush, killed and its body hung on a holly bush over beliefs its song betrayed a Christian hiding from his persecutors. Today, boys dance to homes carrying a stuffed wren and sing for Christmas treats.

(The German Room)

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