By MARTY LEVINE
Can’t figure out how some unusual feature of campus got here? Wondering why things work the way they do at Pitt? See something unusual and think: When was the last time that happened? When was the first time? And how come it keeps happening?
Just ask the UTimes. We’ll try to answer those questions you keep meaning to ask about campus curiosities and historical happenings at Pitt. Send your queries to UTimes@pitt.edu.
Our first question comes from a staff member who has been at Pitt for more than a year and is still wondering:
“What is that log cabin in front of the Cathedral of Learning?”
Before Pitt’s bicentennial celebration in 1986-87 was over, Pitt officials knew that the log house they’d reconstructed on the Cathedral lawn, facing Forbes Avenue, didn’t likely resemble Pitt’s original classroom, as Chancellor Wesley Posvar had intended. Nor did it have many original materials left, once improvements had been added and safety measures made.
But the display was meant to be torn down anyway, once the year ended — it was just a “visual reminder of our origins,” said Posvar, and a “visual sculpture” to help Pitt celebrate 200 years since the original Pittsburgh Academy was built downtown, at Third Avenue and Cherry Way. (It burned in one of the city’s major fires — either 1845 or 1849).
As the anniversary fuss waned, there was even talk of exiling the little building to the Johnstown or Greensburg campuses.
Then Posvar announced the log house would stay.
It’s no mystery why this squat brown structure is mysterious 33 years later. If it ever had a sign, it certainly has none now. And it hasn’t been part of campus tours for a long time — at least not during the 13-year tenure of Michael Walter, current tour coordinator with the Nationality Rooms. It was once a Pitt visitors center, but that ended in 2000. The building has even apparently been a storage space for winter salt supplies through the years.
The log house (with a single ground-floor room, pantry under the stairs and two second-floor rooms) was actually built as a home for a family in Yatesboro in Armstrong County and occupied from 1929 through 1976. It was eventually covered with aluminum siding and, finally, abandoned.
Purchased at an auction for $875 by University Trustee Charles Fagan III — to honor his wife, an alum — it was donated to Pitt, shipped here and reconstructed using original Colonial-era tools and materials.
Photos from 1986 show a very metal crane on site, which was probably not steam-powered. And along with the original logs and fresh but authentic chinking between them, the structure gained a brand-new stone chimney and fireplace, and a fresh oak floor. Plus, it sported new cedar roof shingles, now green with moss. And the windows and doors, although vintage, were likely replaced as well.
The electrical wiring, entering on the Cathedral side of the house, also does not appear to be of the sort that lit the Constitutional Convention just across the state in Philadelphia. Just a guess.
Maxine Bruhns — then, and now, head of the Nationality Rooms program — wrote a memo to a colleague in May 1987, saying that she had spoken to Robert Alberts (author of the mammoth bicentennial tome “Pitt: The Story of the University Of Pittsburgh”) and learned: “It is unlikely that the campus structure resembles the original 1787 log house. He believes the W.PA. Academy structure was larger with more rooms.”
Just eight months after the structure appeared, Bruhns was left to wonder aloud: “Which parts of (the) structure are not old but added — porch? railings? steps?” She also noted that “there seems to be a real doubt that the city will permit the structure to remain as is.”
Apparently, the city relented.
Pitt archivist Zach Brodt believes mere symbols of history have their uses. “I think they can serve as a conversation starter,” he said. “They do represent aspects of the past that we might not be able to access otherwise.”
But, he added, there needs to be “a level of transparency … so as not to dupe the viewers.” Like, say, a sign. “Signage that explains it a little more would help it to be more effective.”
He pointed to a slew of press back in 1987, which explained the log house’s origins and purpose and drew viewers to campus. “If we could drum up those types of sentiments again … I would see an increase in queries about early University history.”
Pitt’s alumni magazine reported in 1987 that Pitt’s first head, George Walsh, who lived and taught in its original log building, allowed students to pay in vegetables or venison when they couldn’t find the cash. If the tiny wooden structure now posing as part of Pitt’s past could become a repository for tuition alternatives today, it could be the most popular building on campus.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.