Friday Fly: Cathedral Commons Room


Garrett Aguilar

(Illustration by Garrett Aguilar | Staff Illustrator)

By Maggie Koontz | Columnist

“Friday Fly” is a recurring column dedicated to a fly on the wall’s perspective on campus spots and daily life here at Pitt. This is the second installment.

The Cathedral of Learning Commons Room is a feat of Gothic architecture, crafted out of limestone, slate and iron. Pathfinders passing through the cavernous room don’t fail to mention to each group of prospective students that the room bears a striking resemblance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Sitting underneath the high, arched ceiling, you get the sense this room is tinged with the slightest hint of magic.

The ornate stone walls reach up to create a dome that is four stories tall, with enormous lamps like flashlights dangling from chains. All around the room, the stone walls part to reveal the hallways of the first, second and third floors, giving a glimpse of students walking to class, unaware they are being observed. Those same students can also gaze across the whole room, surveying the area down below from the second or third floor.

As my view moves around the room, I see studious people hunched over notebooks or laptops and pairs of students helping each other. Two girls, one in a navy blue jacket and one in a black jacket, sit at a bench at the edge of the room. They straddle the bench, facing each other. Navy Blue Jacket is quizzing Black Jacket on American Sign Language. She makes a sign with her hand and then Black Jacket guesses, only for Navy Blue Jacket to correct her. They move on to the next sign and the quizzing continues.

Anyone who comes to work in the Commons Room is likely to hunker down for a bit. Small octagonal tables are scattered all over the room with simple wooden chairs set around them. Usually a table is only occupied by one person, maybe two. Tables that look as though they have been used for a medieval feast with long benches like church pews border most of the room’s perimeter. Kingly thrones are set in the center of the room, backed against a stone column and only used by students as a last resort. Mostly, you see touring students and their families take photos in them.

At one of the many octagonal tables, a girl in a sweater slouches in her seat. A paper with a list of highlighted words is placed askew on top of a pink folder. There are three columns of terms which look to be scientific. On the table in front of her lies a whiteboard. The girl writes the words on the whiteboard, filling the space. She carefully reads over them again, then removes them with a couple of swipes of her eraser.

The first-floor hallway surrounds the Commons Room, cordoned off from the main space by an intricate black railing. In this hallway, small rectangular tables and benches sit tucked into the wall in small alcoves facing the Commons Room. These tables simultaneously offer privacy and exposure due to their placement a bit above the others. Students sit like statues, staring in concentration at screens that give off a light blue glow. Above them, prism lamps attached to the wall beam light directly onto the tables.

In the stone walls of the first floor, the Cathedral hides some steps. There are many passages into and out of the Commons Room, but these ones aren’t immediately noticeable. Every once in a while, a professor or student with a stack of books will emerge unexpectedly, startling those sitting on the other side. By the main gate are two massive limestone columns. Upon further inspection, each reveals a dim, cramped, hidden staircase leading to the second floor.

A girl wearing a white long-sleeved shirt with fall leaves on it works at the end of one of the long rectangular tables. Her laptop is open in front of her, revealing an Excel spreadsheet on the screen. She types away at her keyboard for a bit before taking a lunch break. The girl pulls a black cloth lunch bag out of her gray backpack. She eats a turkey sandwich on wheat bread, munches on some pretzel sticks and then carefully peels back the skin of an orange before devouring that as well. She briefly watches as people move back and forth along the pathway in front of her. Then she returns to her spreadsheet, tapping away.

An older man in a colorful sweater sits at the other end of the bench. He sifts through a stack of papers, every page covered in text. Perhaps he is a professor grading midterms or essays. Pen in hand, he marks up the pages with a quick check here and a couple of words there. Sometimes, the man nods to himself. Other times, a frown appears on his face before he shakes his head and then scribbles something on the paper.

The Cathedral sits at what feels like the heart of campus, and the constant signs of activity in this stony chamber make it seem like you can almost feel the University’s pulse. Some within the Common Room’s ornately sculpted walls are there to reflect on the deepest implications of their course material — others to cram for a test on the third floor in 15 minutes. Whatever they’re there for, however, almost everyone ends up walking through the room’s imposing iron gate at least once.

“Here is eternal spring,” an inscription above reads. “For you the very stars of heaven are new.”

Maggie primarily writes creative nonfiction and about student life for The Pitt News. Write to her at [email protected].

The Pitt News is looking for students interested in creative writing, including creative nonfiction, poetry and short stories to write for the Opinions section. If interested, please contact [email protected]

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