FIVE GOLDEN THINGS: This is fifth and final of our posts on holiday outings that underscore the Pittsburgh region’s commitment to sustainability in many forms.
As someone in the business of bringing people from far and wide to Pittsburgh, I find The Nationality Rooms in the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning to be among the region’s truly unique places to share with visitors. At Christmastime they are especially beautiful, festooned with the colorful trappings of winter holidays that are observed by cultures and religions around the globe. (More about that – and special holiday tours — below).
To me, the Nationality Rooms underscore the ultimate sustainable resource: people. Pittsburgh was built into an industrial powerhouse because of the hard work and innovative thinking of native-born men and women, and those who came from afar to make a better life here. European immigrants – particularly from Eastern Europe – were among those powered the steel boom beginning in the mid-19th century, while African-Americans who moved north during the Great Migration of the 20th century helped keep steel and other regional industries humming.
Immigration to the United States still comes from Europe, but we are increasingly seeing newcomers from such places as China, India and Latin America, with some of the highest skilled immigrants choosing Pittsburgh. “Old Europe” is still important when it comes to seeking new trade and investment for our region. I will be part of a delegation led by Governor Tom Corbett to France and Germany in 2012, which together are the top source of foreign direct investment in Pennsylvania. (My research colleagues here at the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance calculate that German-based firms are the largest foreign employer in our 10-county region, with 84 firm providing jobs to an estimated 10,585 people. Thirty-one French-based companies employ an estimated 3,475 people.)
But you don’t have to go to France or Germany – or anywhere – to take in the visual flavor of dozens and countries and cultures. The Nationality Rooms here in Oakland are actual working classrooms furnished in the style of their respective countries – down to switch plates, door handles, hinges and even wastebaskets.
The concept was developed by Pitt Chancellor John Bowman in the late 1920s as a way to emotionally and financially invest the community in the cathedral’s construction amid what would soon become quite trying economic times. The region’s ethnic communities were invited to design the rooms in styles popular in their home countries around 1787, the year the university was founded. Each group was responsible for its own fundraising, acquisition of materials, and labor costs, with Pitt providing upkeep upon completion.
Eastern European cultures are especially well-represented among the rooms, as are those of China, Japan, Syria-Lebanon and Armenia. The African heritage room reflects an Asante temple courtyard from Ghana, and Yoruban carvings depict such ancient kingdoms as Egypt, Ethiopia, Congo and Zimbabwe. Nine additional nationality room committees have made requests, with Swiss and Turkish rooms planned to open in 2012.
Around Christmastime, the 27 rooms are decked in seasonal finery, and ethnic dance performances are featured early in December. The decorations remain up through Jan. 14 (although the building is closed Dec. 24-26, and on Jan. 1). From Dec. 27-31, 90-minute guided tours are offered every half-hour from 9 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. (tickets cost $3 for adults; $1 for kids). If you can’t make it during the holiday, narrated-tape tours are available on weekends throughout the years. For more information – or to take a virtual online tour of the rooms – check out the website of the Nationality Rooms.