A Quick Look at Three Pittsburgh Landmarks.

In my last few posts about Pennsylvania, I took a look at facts and histories from Dave Hurst’s book, PENNSYLVANIA’S ALLEGHENY MOUNTAINS. Today we’ll go a different route and use several online resources instead. In this post we’ll take a look at the histories of three well-known Pittsburgh establishments: The Cathedral of Learning, Phipp’s Botanical Gardens and Frick Park. What, if anything, do these places have in common? How do the organizations who run them give back to the Pittsburgh community? Let’s take a look at them now:

The Cathedral of Learning

The Cathedral of Learning, known to every Southwestern Pennsylvania school child since the 1930s, has towered over Oakland for the past eighty years. Out-of-towners often think the Cathedral is located in downtown Pittsburgh along with the Allegheny County Courthouse, The Frick Building and the old Pennsylvania Railroad Station Rotunda. The Cathedral of Learning is, in fact, four miles from downtown, or a mere ten minute drive from the city’s center. It can, in fact, be seen on a clear day from the overlooks up Mt. Washington, and seen from nearly everywhere in Oakland itself. The Cathedral hosts everything from glee club recitals and Pitt concerts to business meetings and student study groups. If I’d chosen to attend Pitt instead of Johnson University, I would’ve adored preparing for exams in a place such as the Cathedral.

source: Pittwire

The Architect: Charles Klauder

Completed a mere four years before Klauder’s death in 1938, the Cathedral of Learning was one of Klauder’s last projects. He worked mostly with colleges and universities, and the Cathedral is a staple in every school child’s repertoire for tours and city exploration. While Klauder is most well known for the Cathedral, he also designed buildings for Cornell University, Franklin and Marshall College, Princeton, Penn State and many others.

source: Wikipedia

The Purpose: Learning, of course!

According to Wikipedia, the Cathedral is “the tallest educational building in the Western Hemisphere,” a fact that hasn’t changed since its completion 87 years ago. The building is home to a theater, auditorium, Nationality Rooms, language studies, computer facilities, honors college, ROTC, financial offices for the college, and many more.

In 1921, John Gabbert Bowman became the tenth chancellor of the university. At that time, the school consisted of a series of buildings constructed along Henry Hornbostel’s plan for the campus and included “temporary” wooden structures built during World War I. He then began to envision a “tall building”, that would be later termed the Cathedral of Learning, to provide a dramatic symbol of education for the city and alleviate overcrowding by adding much needed space in order to meet present and future needs of the university.

source – Wikipedia

The building was conceptualized during a time when everyone from New York City to Pittsburgh and beyond aspired to build the next biggest tower. 56 Pine Street and the Osbourne Apartments are two such towers still standing today in New York City; they were completed in 1894 and 1895, respectively. It was buildings like these which were threatened with bombings at the beginning of World War II, so it’s not at all surprising that the Cathedral also received such threats. After quarry, war and financing issues, the tower was finally dedicated in 1937.

I wonder what Mr. Bowman would say if he could see the Cathedral today. Would he be impressed? Satisfied? Vindicated against all the naysayers of his time? Would he have done anything differently in his quest to build a centralized location for his students? If you ever have a chance to visit Oakland, swing by the Cathedral of Learning. Tour of the International Rooms, explore the building’s many riveting passages or take in a show or two (once they resume, of course!) in the show hall.

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

Predating The Cathedral of Learning by almost thirty years, the botanical gardens have been open to the public since 1893. The concept for the conservatory is a very Victorian thing, indeed, so it makes sense that a place like this would draw visitors from all over the Pennsylvanian region. Gifted to the city of Pittsburgh by business tycoon Henry W. Phipps. According to history,

wished to “erect something that [would] prove a source of instruction as well as pleasure to the people.” Designed by Lord & Burnham, a New York-based greenhouse manufacturer, for a fee of $100,000, the glasshouse, consisting of nine display rooms, was completed in August 1893, one year after construction began. On Dec. 7, 1893, Phipps Conservatory opened to the public, showcasing many plants originating from the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. After its founding, Henry Phipps continued to serve as the Conservatory’s benefactor until his death in 1930 at the age of 91.

source – Phipps Conservatory website

As with anything, everything, in Pittsburgh, one must look at the individuals behind the place. Example: while Andrew Carnegie may have been an incredibly knowledgeable and involved businessman, his feud with HC Frick is well known in history. Neither man was known for humility, and their differing business practices came to a head during the great Homestead Strike of 1892. While neither man is entirely to blame, there was a buildup over time which eventually led to the deadly strike. Why do I bring up Carnegie at all? Not only were Phipps and Carnegie business partners, but childhood friends as well.

At one time I had photos of my visit to Phipps a couple of years ago for my birthday; alas, they’re nowhere to be found now. My parents and sister’s family both have annual passes to the gardens, and I go once in a blue moon. The large, glass building sits in a graceful and low position on a hill, so you walk down into it as opposed to up to it. The building truly is a gorgeous site on a bright, sunny day. With a Children’s Learning area, “living” train platform and many events, visiting this botanical garden is one the best, and cheapest, things you can do. Ten out of ten would recommend (although as of now, only time blocked tickets are available).

In addition to his role in Carnegie’s company, Phipps was a successful real estate investor. After eventually selling his stock in Carnegie Steel, Phipps spent a great deal of his time and money in philanthropic projects. Considered one of the pioneer investors in Florida real estate, Phipps and his family owned one-third of the town of Palm Beach at one point. Among his most prominent philanthropic ventures is the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Schenley Park, which was an 1893 gift to the city of Pittsburgh. Phipps also funded the Phipps Institute for the Study, Treatment and Prevention of Tuberculosis at the University of Pennsylvania and The Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which in 1913 stood as the first ever inpatient facility in the U.S. for the mentally ill.

source – EntrepeneurWiki

Phipps source

Carnegie source

Frick source

The Frick

Ah, The Frick. The one place on this list I’ve yet to visit. One of Pittsburgh’s trifecta moguls of the 19th century, Henry Clay Frick is most known for his connections to Andrew Carnegie. I highly doubt the man would’ve called his own estate The Frick, but he was a shrewd businessman who didn’t “mesh” well with the working class. In fact, one of the biggest worker strikes in Pennsylvania history took place under his watch at the Homestead Steel Works. Bonus location: The Carrie Blast Furnaces are a grand tourist attraction and wedding venue folks can visit along the Monongahela River and are almost directly across from the works’ site. Today Homestead is a shopping destination. I truly wish more of that history was still standing. Back to The Frick.

Despite Frick’s business beliefs and models, Pittsburgh can’t deny the impact he had on our communities. According to a biography over at britannica.com, “Frick played a major role in the formation of the United States Steel Corporation in 1901 and later became a director. He also served as a director of a number of railroads.” There are more operating railroads in Pennsylvania than any other state in our modern century. How do I know? I’ve already ridden several of them, and plan on adding more to that list. If there’s one thing I appreciate about Frick, it’s his involvement in the train and travel businesses.

Fun fact: The building pictured in the link for the US Steel Corporation was known as the “Steel Building” until UPMC purchased the Pittsburgh skyscraper. To this day, many Pittsburghers my age (35) and older still call it “The Steel Building.”

At the Grable Visitor Center one can: “learn about the collections, the Frick family and Pittsburgh history, and schedule a tour of Clayton.” The Clayton (currently closed), was “The home of the Henry Clay Frick family from 1882–1905, this meticulously restored 23-room mansion features an impressive array of fine and decorative art objects purchased by the Fricks. Most other parts of the park are self explanatory.

For years I’ve wanted to take my mother to The Cafe for one of their English High Teas and nearly got to last year. But then the ‘rona put everything on hold. And, sadly, it’s unclear if the teas will return after The Cafe reopens.


Carnegie, Phipps and Frick. Each man has a colorful history, with each one contributing much to Southwestern Pennsylvania. Each was aware of one another and perhaps more acquainted than any of us will truly know. Carnegie’s history is forever attached to Frick; some books on the subject will be linked below.

If you ever have a change to visit the ever-changing city of Pittsburgh, I wholeheartedly invite you to do so! If you’re looking for history, look no further than Southwestern Pennsylvania. We’re not without our qualms, but we know how to work hard and play hard. So did the makers of The Cathedral of Learning, The Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and The Frick.

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