The Pittsburgh Academy was founded in 1787 to educate the then-frontier people of western Pennsylvania. But the rapid American expansion soon necessitated a higher sort of education, so the school was re-chartered in 1819 as the Western University of Pennsylvania, a sister school to the eastern University of Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh’s Great Fire of 1845 took out original school facilities along with nearly 20 blocks of Pittsburgh, and the WUP was forced to scatter its campus around the city to keep going during the rebuilding phase.
In 1908, the university decided it needed to distance itself from Penn and re-named itself the University of Pittsburgh, to better identify with its city home. Construction began on a plot of 43 acres purchased in December 1907 to consolidate the campus in one part of the city. The early 20th century was a good one for Pitt—-donations from alums and city residents funded the construction of the Cathedral of Learning (the world's second tallest educational building, completed in 1937), and the school’s Virus Research Lab which hosted Dr. Jonas Salk’s team as they developed the first vaccine for polio.
Financial woes threatened to shutter the school in the early 1960s, until Pitt was re-classified as a “state-related university” in 1966. This meant it could receive state funds and subsidize cheaper in-state resident tuition while retaining control independent from the state. The Pennsylvania discount opened the flood gates, and the school has since expanded rapidly in the size of its student body, athletic programs, grad school offerings, and research endeavors.
Over its two-century history, Pitt has assembled an eclectic assortment of styles and buildings in the center of the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Oakland. The Cathedral of Learning, which stands 42 stories high, is an enormous academic structure modeled after vaulted Gothic buildings from Europe. It anchors one of the few spots in Pittsburgh that is entirely Pitt’s, together with the mid-campus Schenley Quad (a group of five apartment-style residence halls complete with dining and recreational facilities), the William Pitt Union student center, and the Posvar Hall classrooms.
Medical school buildings fence the school in on the west (keeping students in the dorms awake at night with the constant sound of medical helicopters and ambulances), and sports and residential buildings on the upper side bleed into the campuses of nearby Carnegie Mellon and Carlow University. Buildings vary vastly between neo-Gothic, neo-Hellenic, neo-Italian Renaissance, and a more traditional brown-brick modern, a mix that is representative of the many directions Pitt has been steered in over time.
Past the central mid-campus cluster, students report there’s little to tie the Pitt campus together physically. Instead, students enthusiastically join the general college fray in Oakland, which, with its coffee shops, vintage clothing stores and boutiques, bars, and all-night diners that still have smoking sections, invites students from different Oakland schools to mingle on Forbes Avenue. Free bus passes make it easy for students to get downtown to a Steelers tailgate, uptown to a Squirrel Hill bar, or across town to a concert or gallery party in the Strip District in no time.
Pittsburgh hosts more than half-a-dozen colleges, and the city has a surprising wealth of accessible student-friendly entertainment options that substitute for the “campus bubble” that never really developed at Pitt. Pitt student IDs score the bearer a free ride on public transportation and hefty discounts at everything from the Carnegie Museums to Penguins hockey games. After the first year, most students elect to live in one of the many houses or apartments just up the hill, usually within walking distance of classes. On the weekends, students head to one of Pittsburgh’s social neighborhoods, where stretches of neon-lit sports bars with drink specials entice the college crowd from all over the city.
Fall is a busy time for Pitt students—-after spending the summer away from Oakland, there are plenty of events to keep them hopping during their first weeks back. Incoming students are divided by gender to participate in one of two long-standing traditions immediately preceding the first day of classes. Lantern Night, for the ladies, takes places in Heinz Chapel. Each freshman woman carries a lantern and listens to a keynote address from a distinguished alumna. The men head to Alumni Hall where they receive a Pitt-themed pin. Older students flock to the seasonally-appropriate Fall Fest for bands, games, and entertainment. They repeat the spectacle in the spring, only this time they call it the “Bigelow Bash,” with different bands, games, and entertainment.
Pitt Arts is a University-city partnership that gives students access to discounted and free tickets to a wide variety of artistic, cultural, and historical events and locales across the city during the year. The three components, “Art Encounters,” “Free Visits,” and “Cheap Seats,” all encourage Pitt students to visit museums, concerts, performances, and other activities that take advantage of Pittsburgh’s cultural resources.
Pittsburgh is proud of its sports traditions, and Pitt students mix black-and-gold and blue-and-gold pride in the Forbes Home Plate Slide. For good luck, students either step on or slide into the former home base from the long-gone Forbes Field baseball stadium. Since the stadium is no more, students have to do their base-running in Posvar Hall, where the home plate is on display.
Dan Marino (1982) is a legendary Miami Dolphins quarterback.
Gene Kelly (1933)was a dance, musical, and movie star from Hollywood’s Golden Era.
Michael Chabon (1984) is a Pulitizer Prize-winning novelist and essayist.
Tony Dorsett (1976) is a Heisman Trophy Winner and member of both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
Myron Cope (1951) was a Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers radio broadcaster and “Voice of the Steelers.”
Andrew Mellon (1873) was a banker, politician, philanthropist, and captain of Pittsburgh industry.
Pitt offers the standard Division I varsity roster, but its primary focus remains on the big-two combo of football and men’s basketball. Pittsburgh is a football town, and even though the Panthers (and pretty much everything else) take a back seat to the Steelers, Pitt has proudly built its football program since 1889. In that time, they’ve taken nine national championships, honored 86 first-team All-American players, and launched a number of legendary football careers—including the likes of Mike Ditka, Dan Marino, Mark May, Bill Fralic, and Tony Dorsett.
During the football off-season, basketball takes the center stage. Since its start in 1905, Pitt has regularly fielded competitive teams. When Pitt first became a part of the Big East Conference in 1982, the program gained national recognition quickly and has been, in recent years, at the top of the league. Pitt’s men’s team is particularly hot, having scored seven straight NCAA tournament invites since 2001.
Because of its size and resources, Pitt teams in other fields—-including track, swimming and diving, wrestling, and women’s volleyball—-are usually well-regarded in Big East play. Pitt students and faculty also have a full slate of intramural sports and recreational leagues to give them a chance to get a little play in before getting back to their books.
The Cathedral of Learning hosts 27 “Nationality Rooms” decorated to showcase the history and culture of 27 different countries.
Pitt has a history of medical innovation, including the first MRI, the first public CPR techniques, and the first polio vaccine.
The Pitt Panthers football team currently shares Heinz Field with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While a number of students at Pitt elect to lead the off-campus life in residential or Greek houses near the school, Pitt has been pushing to bring upperclassmen back on campus by building a number of high-capacity dorms and apartment-style towers. The dorms appear in two clusters, one near the upper edge of campus and the other closer to the heart of campus.
Sutherland Hall, Pennsylvania Hall, and Panther Hall, which comprise the up-campus cluster, are all big, new facilities that pair floors of suite-style rooms with all the necessary in-house amenities, including coffee carts, fitness centers, laundry machines, lounges, and meeting spaces. Sutherland Hall residents also have the advantage of living in the same building as the primary upper-campus dining hall. Frat houses, known as “the hill houses,” are nearby, both on- and off-campus.
It’s easy to find the other group of dorms—-just look for the Cathedral of Learning in the Oakland skyline (it shouldn’t be hard) and walk towards the heart of campus. There, the Schenley Quad is ringed by five residential buildings (Amos, Brackenridge, Bruce, Holland, and McCormick Halls). Originally designed as apartments for wealthy Pittsburghers, the buildings now house a mix of freshmen, upperclassmen, and even sororities without separate houses.
Completing the residential roster are the architectural atrocities known to Pitt students as Towers A, B, and C. Officially named the Litchfield Towers, these massive, cylindrically-shaped high-rises are the largest dorms on campus. Towers A (19 stories tall) and B (22 stories high) are where most freshmen share their first tiny two-person room, while Tower C (the shortest, 16 stories) is open to upperclassmen as well, and all the rooms are single-occupancy. Because they pack in the most students, the Towers are also home to Panther Central (a student life office that takes care of basic services like ID cards and housing administration) and Market Central (“Emcee”), the largest dining facility on campus, with six all-you-can-eat buffet lines and a handful of food court options.