U. of Pitt kicks off holiday festivities

Join two holiday traditions on the main campus of the University of Pittsburgh next weekend. The Nationality Rooms in the Cathedral of Learning will be dressed in its holiday finest for the annual open house from noon to 4 p.m. on Dec. 2. Walk across campus to a holiday choral concert scheduled at Heinz Memorial Chapel at 8 p.m. Advanced ticket sales are required.
Pittsburgh Chancellor John Bowman, who oversaw the construction of both buildings in the 1920s, would be pleased to see the diversity of visitors every year. He recognized that one role of the university was to celebrate the area's heritage in both classrooms and a house of worship.
The 26 Nationality Rooms in the first and third floors of the 42-story Cathedral of Learning are decorated in tradition fashion for the season. Guides don ethnic dress and performances are held every 15 minutes.
In addition to viewing the rooms modeled after different cultures before the 1800s, visitors can also watch craft demonstrations and shop in the diverse marketplace.
Tours: Even if you don't make it for the holiday season, the Nationality Rooms are open for touring year-round. They are dedicated to the heritages of Pittsburgh's cultural groups. More than 26 ethnic communities have funded class rooms to display Classical, Byzantine, Baroque, Romanesque, Renaissance, Tudor, Empire, Minka and folk styles. Each group re-creates homeland decor.
Visitors can walk through the rooms at their own pace or opt for an audio guide. Or a docent, often a University of Pittsburgh student, will interpret the details of the rooms for groups.
According to guide Matt Heffrin, administration support staff member for the Nationality Rooms, the idea for the Nationality Rooms was part of the original design of the 42-story building. Since the first room was decorated, immigrant groups formed committees to raise funds. Often money would come from bake sales, church bazaars and folk dancers. He said that a room today would cost about $300,000 to renovate and furnish.
The original work began during the depression and funding was difficult to accomplish, Heffrin explained. The beginning of World War II added other challenges when groups wanted to bring over native craftsmen to complete a room.
According to a university brochure, "The Nationality Rooms do not contain political themes of symbols, nor may a living person be portrayed therein. It is a principle that each room design predate the signing of the American Constitution and the founding of the University of Pittsburgh in 1787."
Instead of plaques, donors are recognized in a donor book discreetly placed in a cabinet.
Time travel: A four-wall classroom can transport visitors overseas and back in time. For example, the Czechoslovak Room has a beamed ceiling painted with bright flowers. The German Room has stained-glass windows with the Grimm Brothers fairy tale characters. Yoruba sculptures depict the ancient kingdoms of Africa in the African heritage classroom.
Architectural highlights include the Renaissance periods of the Polish and Italian Rooms. Classical fifth century Greek architecture is used in the Greek Room.
Memorial chapel: Another tribute to great architecture is just across the lawn at the Heinz Memorial Chapel.
Tom Meisner, a docent and 1964 graduate of Cardinal Mooney High School gives informal and group tours throughout the week.
Meisner said Henry John Heinz gave funds in his will to build the neo-Gothic-style chapel to honor his mother, Anna Margaretta Heinz. The interdenominational chapel was dedicated in 1938 and since that time has held a variety of services.
More than 1,500 events including many weddings occur every year at the chapel. While some visitors come to pray or meditate, more than 100,000 visitors participate in religious services, weddings, concerts, classes, memorial services and guided tours.
Highlights: The imposing steeple rises 253 feet above Indiana limestone walls. Once inside the tall 800-pound doors, visitors are automatically drawn to the tall towers of stained-glass windows. According to a brochure, "The chapels' 23 windows total approximately 4,000 square feet and contain nearly 250,000 pieces of glass. There are 391 identifiable people in the windows, a large supporting cast of anonymous individuals and an extensive variety of flora and fauna."
The windows not only include major religious figures, but icons of historical and cultural figures. Meisner also pointed out that about half of the hundreds of stained-glass figures were women.
Stone carvings include the Torah and the Bible, The New Testament beatitudes and shield of the 12 apostles.
Intricate red oak carvings surround the front pulpit. Four figures in the reredos represent saints Peter, John, Paul and James the Major.
The renovated church organ is a major attraction as part of the concert series.

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