Dr. Bowman, who became Chancellor after World War I, was charged with developing a great university in a city richly populated with first-generation immigrant families. He was indeed the right person to be in a stimulating environment faced with a formidable challenge and a maze of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
The building of the new tower is a story in itself, superbly told by Dr. Bowman in a privately-printed edition entitled Unofficial Notes. The parallel project of creating nationality classrooms to serve as a real and symbolic base for the soaring tower is what concerns us here.
It was Dr. Bowman’s desire to provide students with unique classrooms which would reflect a highly-creative period in the motherlands of Pittsburgh’s new citizens. He conceived the idea of inviting community representatives of diverse nations to plan and build classrooms depicting an era or aspect of the heritage they had brought to America. To direct this program, Dr. Bowman appointed Ruth Crawford Mitchell as his special assistant. A lecturer in economics with extensive European experience that had forged a bond of affection and understanding with these transplanted people, Dr. Mitchell set about her task with enthusiasm, boundless energy, and imagination. It took thirty years.
The flood of community excitement and pride stimulated by the University’s invitation soon was channeled into serious study of the history, art, religion, philosophy, customs, and traditions of those nations. The task of identifying the concepts or themes which would best represent each cultural heritage was an important first step.
Principles were established which dictated that each room should represent a nation accorded diplomatic recognition by the United States government. In that post-World War I-era, it was decided that the content of every room was to be cultural, with the only political reference permitted being a symbol carved in stone above the room’s corridor entrance. No living person would be portrayed, and the room’s design would represent a period pre-dating the American constitution and the founding of the University in 1787.
Parallel committees abroad were formed for each room to assist in consulting or design, recommending architects, selecting the finest materials, artists and artisans to design the space and furnishings.
The Depression, occurring a scant four years after the first committees were formed, haunted the fundraising efforts of these people of modest income. Proceeds from church events, Kennywood Park benefits, bake sales and concerts, augmented by donations from individuals, fraternal unions, social groups, and, frequently, by gifts from foreign governments, eventually provided the amounts necessary to build nineteen rooms by 1957.
With the 1930’s came the rise of fascism in Europe and the turmoil which culminated in World War II.
Delicate negotiations abroad involving the rooms were interrupted and complicated by the onrush of events affecting many of the nations and the United States.
The leather-bound volumes of the Nationality Rooms archives carefully document unfolding dramas, such as the events which prevented the German and Italian Rooms’ completion until after the war; the successful 1934 nationwide fund drive conducted in the United States by the Chinese Room Committee, when hostilities in Manchuria delayed the donation pledged by the Chinese government; the sadly prophetic words spoken by Jan Masaryk at the dedication of the Czechoslovak Room in 1939; and the haste to ship the Pentelic marble columns for the Greek Room before war closed the Mediterranean to American shipping in 1940.
Between 1938 and 1957 each room was dedicated in an impressive ceremony in the Commons Room. Archbishops, diplomats, choirs, University representatives, students and townspeople joined in celebrating the completion of these gifts to the University bestowed by proud, diligent communities.
A rich variety of styles emerged to symbolize a “golden age” in the history or tradition of each nation. No expense was spared to insure authenticity, quality and durability. The committees realized they were not only building rooms for themselves, but for many generations to come. Timelessness was sought and achieved with a rare degree of success.
In 1957, following Ruth Crawford Mitchell’s retirement, eight years went by with no new room initiatives.
E. Maxine Bruhns
In 1965, a new director arrived. E. Maxine Bruhns had just returned from 15 years of residence in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. With Mrs. Mitchell’s help in obtaining a grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation, Bruhns turned the one-day-per-week position of Executive Secretary to a full-time position of Director. She slowly enlarged the staff from one graduate student assistant to five full-time and four part-time staff.
It soon became clear that the original Nationality Room principle requiring nations to be recognized by the U.S. Department of State was denying many ethnic groups the privilege of creating their own rooms. A broader definition of “nationality” and the concept of “heritage rooms” paved the way for the creation of new rooms depicting the cultural history of peoples whose traditional territory and way of life may not coincide with political boundaries.
In 1987, a new collection of rooms were assembled on the third floor of the Cathedral of Learning.
After a thirty year hiatus, the Israel Heritage Room opened on November 1, 1987. A first-century stone dwelling in Galilee was the model for this room. Student seating is provided by stone benches patterned after those in the 2nd and 3rd century synagogue of Capernaum.
The Armenian Room, commemorating the world’s first Christian nation, is inspired by the library in the Sanahin monastery, built in the 10th to 12th centuries. Its diagonal arches were designed to withstand earthquakes.
Asante Temple Courtyard
Pittsburgh’s African American community chose to represent their cultures through an Asante temple courtyard incorporating the arts, science, music and languages of African’s ancient kingdoms
The Ukrainian Room is a re-creation of a nobleman’s reception room. The intricate metalwork traces Ukrainian culture to its 17th century renaissance.
The Austrian Room’s 18th century Baroque style will reflect the zenith of the Austrian Empire under the Habsburgs. Elements of the Haydn Saal in Schloss Esterhazy at Eisenstadt combine to form a unique elegance.
Traditional carpentry and woodcraft are the highlight of the Japanese Room. This freestanding structure recalls the residence of a village leader in the Kyoto region in minka style.
At its peak, the 4th – 9th century Buddhist monastery university at Nalanda consisted of five temples and 11 monasteries over 32 acres.
The Indian Room celebrates the nation’s educational and architectural heritage during India’s Golden Age.
The Welsh Room depicts an 18th-century Non-Conformist chapel with Pen-rhiw Chapel as the prototype. In a largely agrarian or mining community, simplicity was the fashion. The ability to worship and hear the sermon in Welsh, rather than the legislated English language, was most important.
It is based upon the bas odasi (the principal room) and the vestibule of a Turkish house. Constructed with kundekari and citakari woodwork, there are also ceramic artworks to illustrate various cultural and and historical aspects through a broad range of Turkish history.
The Swiss Nationality Room was dedicated on April 22nd, 2012. The room is modeled upon the Zurich Room (Frauminster Abbey) exhibited at the Landsmuseum in Zurich. It is in a Late Medieval style, circa 1500 and it is typical of Swiss communal rooms used for meetings and classes.
In 1965, when Maxine Bruhns assumed the leadership of the Nationality Rooms Program, eight summer study abroad scholarships were awarded. In 2010, thirty-nine University of Pittsburgh graduate and undergraduate students were able to study in Argentina, Austria, Chile, Colombia, England, France (2),
The first Ruth Crawford Mitchell Czech/Slovak Scholarship was awarded in 1993. The purpose of the scholarship is to bring a citizen of the Czech Republic or Slovakia to the University of Pittsburgh for the fall term to conduct research on a topic relevant to current problems. Research on a variety of topics has been conducted in the areas of medicine, physical therapy, economics, finance, linguistics, ethnomusicology, engineering and education.
Bowman Faculty Grants enable full-time University of Pittsburgh faculty members to gather data for classes they are currently teaching or are preparing to teach. Named after Chancellor John G. Bowman, the awards are offered approximately every three years, as funds permit.