Top of Cathedral offers rooms, great view

By Keith Gillogly

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Popular trivia for Pitt students might ask, “What’s the height of the Cathedral of… Popular trivia for Pitt students might ask, “What’s the height of the Cathedral of Learning?” (535 feet) or, “How many windows does it have?” (2,529). But what’s above the 36th floor of the Cathedral?

That question will leave most students scratching their heads.

For the general public, access above the 36th floor is not allowed. Some of the floors above the 36th house machinery for the building’s functioning, but the 40th floor contains the E.V. Babcock Memorial Room, an ornate meeting room with a panoramic view of surrounding Pittsburgh. The room was constructed with a $327,000 grant from the Babcock family to be used as a meeting room for the University’s Board of Trustees and was officially dedicated in 1958.

Capping the campus’ identifying landmark, the Babcock Room might not be seen by many Pitt students, but it’s meticulously maintained.

Despite its age, the room is in pristine condition. Phillip Hieber ­­— a senior area coordinator with Property and Facilities Management — said that the wooden walls, with their intricately carved geometric patterns, are resealed every two years. Leaf-patterned curtains adorn each window. Visitors will have a hard time spotting any dust on the three long, wooden meeting tables. Except for the lighting, furniture and carpeting, all of the room’s features are original — even the elevator used to access it. Except for emergency exit stairwells, access to the top floor is limited to a single small elevator that connects to the 36th floor. A portrait of E.V. Babcock sits against one of the walls.

The Babcock Room is not used everyday. It’s only used periodically by various University departments to hold meetings and seminars, Hieber said. Pitt’s philosophy and human resources departments recently held seminars there. In the summer, however, the room is rarely used. There’s no air conditioning, and temperatures can be stifling. Hieber said the room’s function as a meeting place — and its subsequent restriction — isn’t very different than the rooms reserved for meetings in other University buildings.

Anyone who’s visited the 35th or 36th floor of the Cathedral can peer out on the impressive view of surrounding Pittsburgh. But spectators have to traverse from room to room to get a full view. It’s the panoramic view offered by the surrounding windows of the single room on the 40th floor that attracts people, Hieber said.

“You get four views of the surrounding city of Pittsburgh. On a clear day, you can see for miles and miles and miles,” Hieber said.

The view can be up to 50 miles. Since the surrounding area used to be covered by water, one professor used to bring his geology class up there to observe how the land had been shaped.

But not all of the sights are off in the horizon. In the corner of the southern wall of the Cathedral rests the nest of two peregrine falcons. Lucky visitors will catch a view of the falcons in their nest or spy them perched on the stone precipice just feet away from the window. But get too close and they’ll swoop off their perch and protectively circle their nest. Even if the falcons aren’t home to receive visitors, a glance around the balcony might reveal a ruffled pile of gray feathers — remnants of the falcons’ pigeon lunch.

The falcons are kept under surveillance by a pair of video cameras, one of which can pick up sound and has a zoom function. They’re viewable online, at

Those reserving the room have the option to have their meeting catered. But providing catering is no picnic. Although there are two small kitchens connected to the Babcock Room, the limited elevator space means catering crews sometimes have to start bringing up lunchtime supplies by 8 a.m., Hieber said.

As the room was once used as the venue for Board of Trustees’ meetings, the board’s number of members grew and the room proved inadequate. Fire safety codes limit occupancy to 35 people. There’s also no bathroom on the 40th floor.

“Squishing all the people into this room would just not work,” said John Fedele, spokesman for Pitt.

Hieber said he’s heard reports of students trying to sneak up the 40th floor. But operating the elevator requires a key.

The Cathedral is 42 stories high, but the top two stories are just part of the building’s stone structure. All four sides of these stories have three flashing lights on each side required by the Federal Aviation Administration for air traffic safety, Hieber said.

The 37th through 39th floors contain machinery for operating the building’s elevators and sprinkler systems.

Pitt freshman Kourtney Bernecker said she didn’t know what was above the 36th floor.

“I just knew there was a point you couldn’t go anymore, and it was really depressing when I found that out,” she said. “I pay tuition, I think I should be able to go up there — at least before I graduate. It should be a graduation requirement.”

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