New nationality room to celebrate shared Korean culture


After he moved from Tokyo to Pittsburgh with his wife and children to attend graduate school at Carnegie Mellon, Jim Nakajima visited the nationality rooms twice. Though he considers the Austrian Room his favorite because of its regal decor, he feels a special connection to the Japanese Room.

“[The Japanese room] reminds me of Japanese culture,” Nakajima said. “It makes me miss Japan — in a good way.”

The 29 existing nationality rooms will welcome a new addition to the family this fall: the Korean Heritage Room. The long-awaited room, initially approved in 2007, will finally open on November 15.

E. Maxine Bruhns, the Nationality Room Program’s director since 1965, has worked closely with the Korean Heritage committee to raise an estimated $850,000 to re-build room 304 of the Cathedral. The committee, chaired by David Kim and Sang Park, is modeling the space after Myung-ryoon-dang, the Hall of Enlightenment, which was the main lecture hall of the Royal Academy in the 14th century. The lecture hall now exists as part of Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. In 2014, Pitt approved construction of an Iranian Room, punctuated by a five year deadline.

The committee chose this time period, in part, because it shows an era when Korea was one nation.

“[The Korean Heritage Room committee] wanted to unify the nationality, as we hope it will be unified in the future,” Park said.

South Korean organizations have embraced this new nationality room. One such organization, The Korea Foundation, incrementally donated about $250,000 to the room’s construction as needs arose throughout the duration of the project’s planning. There are no counterparts of the Korean Foundation in North Korea, so the country hasn’t officially recognized the room.

Still, the Korean Heritage Room, like the Nationality Rooms before it, is a product of a dedicated community. Members of Pittsburgh’s Korean community, many of whom are Pitt alumni, will pay for a majority of the final cost of the room. A pamphlet will list the details of the final budget at the room’s November opening.

The room will feature a traditional wooden ceiling, beams, pillars and frosted glass windows designed to block views of the outside. The room will also have two doors: one for the outside corridor, and one on the inside of the classroom room with traditional Korean decorations, which the committee will later determine. The inner door will be able to be lowered and raised with a lever, controlled by a key to which only the classroom professor will have access.

The room’s decor will “keep out Western influence,” Bruhns said.

The committee originally planned for the room’s building materials to come from Korea, but had to alter its plans when about one-quarter of the wood imported from Korea arrived mildewed. The committee will replace the damaged wood with cheaper wood imported from Oregon. Arumjigi Culture Keepers, a Seoul-based nonprofit designed to preserve Korean heritage, will pay for the material.

However, six Korean architects, carpenters and craftsmen will build the room. Arumjigi, also one of the project’s main donors, has taken an active role in coordinating the construction of the room and bringing the carpenters from Korea.

In the 1920s, then-Chancellor John Bowman envisioned the Nationality Rooms as a way to entice prospective students by reflecting Pittsburgh’s increasing, diverse immigrant population. In 1926, he appointed Ruth Crawford Mitchell, a sociology professor with extensive experience overseas and an interest in immigration, to serve as the director of the program. Mitchell worked with cultural committees and oversaw the creation of the first 19 Nationality Rooms by 1956.

Since then, Pitt has added 10 more rooms, with the Korean Heritage room marking the 30th room. Pitt recently gave the Iranian Room committee permission to begin planning the next nationality room, a process that can take between three and 10 years, according to Bruhns. Committees also remain active past construction, hosting events such as the annual Polish festival every November and Indian Independence Day on August 17 in the Cathedral.

As part of the Nationality Rooms program, the individual rooms also offer scholarships every year, which allow students to study abroad in each room’s respective countries.

The rooms themselves are also a tourist hotspot. Between 20,000 and 25,000 tourists pay to view the nationality rooms each year, with adult tickets at $4 and tickets for youths 6 to 18 years old at $2. Michael Walter, the tour guide coordinator, has personally given numerous tours to visitors who find the Nationality Rooms on lists of Pittsburgh attractions.

“People’s reactions [toward the rooms] are overwhelmingly positive,” Walter said

Late last year, Walter gave a tour to Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius and his wife, Janina Butkevičius.

“[They] were beaming with pride that the Lithuanian room exists, and that it was very familiar to them,” Walter said.

For many visitors, seeing the extravagant and detailed nationality rooms is often an overtly cathartic experience.

Bruhns remembers giving an exceptionally emotional tour to a group of Israeli tourists.

“We took them to the Israeli room, and it’s so authentic and life-like that they broke down and cried,” she said.

Bruhns is hopeful the new Korean room will have a similar effect.

“Everyone came from somewhere,” Bruhns said. “As they go through the rooms, they will feel an attachment to something, whether it’s a mosaic or a painting. People will come away with a better idea of who they are.”