Decorated Nationality Rooms celebrate world's cultures
By Natalie Beneviat
Published: Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, 2:06 p.m.
Every holiday season, the Nationality Rooms in the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning are decorated according to their ethnic traditions, which can provide a perfect gift for those who want to learn about other cultures or celebrate their own.
The Nationality Rooms, which represent 29 cultural groups that have settled in Allegheny County, are decorated annually by a committee devoted to each room, said E. Maxine Bruhns, director of the Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange Programs.
“It gives everybody a chance to show off their culture,” said Bruhns.
“There's nothing like us anywhere.”
The rooms are located on the first and third floors of the Cathedral of Learning, a historic Pittsburgh landmark that reaches 535 feet into the city skyline from its campus home at 4200 Fifth Ave. in the Oakland neighborhood.
In 1938, a year after the Cathedral of Learning was built, the first four Nationality Rooms opened. They represented the cultures of German, Russia, Scotland and Sweden, Bruhns said.
The plan for each room was to represent various cultures and nations through design and decor, Bruhns said.
Up to 1957, a total of 19 Nationality Rooms opened, she said. Since she joined the program in 1965, she has helped coordinate another 10, with the number of rooms now at 29.
This includes the recent opening and dedication of the Turkish room in March and the Swiss room in April, said Bruhns, 88.
Because the rooms also are used as classrooms for university students, tours while school is in session are limited to the weekends. Decorations will be removed Jan. 19.
The rooms are available for audio tours from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sundays, except Dec. 29 and 30. During the holiday break, they are open from Dec. 27 to 31, with the first guided tour beginning at 10:30 a.m. and last one at 2:30 p.m. They are closed Dec. 24 to 26 and Jan. 1.
Adult admission costs $4, and admission for youths ages 6 to 18 costs $2.
Bruhns said the rooms offer a unique educational experience for learning about various cultures that are represented in Pittsburgh.
This is the first year the Swiss room will be decorated for the holidays.
Because Switzerland is a multilingual and multicultural country, the Swiss decorations must represent many different types of traditions, said Dr. Heinz Kunz of O'Hara Township, chairman of the Swiss room.
“Switzerland is celebrated in many different ways,” he said.
The Swiss room is modeled after a “15th-century room from Fraumunster Abbey in Zurich.”
Born and raised in Switzerland, Kunz, a retired Pitt medical school professor, led the Swiss Nationality Room Committee in the design of the room. He also is a former honorary consul of Switzerland for Pittsburgh.
He said now and throughout the year, the Nationality Rooms offer “a great educational experience.”
Dr. Etsuro Motoyama, a professor emeritus of anesthesiology and pediatrics with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, has been chairman of the Japanese Nationality Room Committee for more than five years.
Including fundraising for an annual scholarship, Motoyama also leads a group of approximately eight people who are devoted to decorating and maintaining the Japanese room, he said.
Born in Japan and now a resident of Fox Chapel, Motoyama had postgraduate training in the United States and practiced many years thereafter.
The decor of the Japanese room reflects carpentry and woodcraft of a typical mid-1700s minka style, a commoner's house in Japan, Motoyama said.
For the holiday season, he said, the room is be decorated with traditional Japanese New Year's ornaments and flower arrangements.
The Chinese room is decorated for the Chinese New Year, which is based on the lunar cycle and can happen anywhere between Jan. 20 and Feb. 20, said Karen Yee, chairwoman of the Chinese room since 1988, she said.
The Chinese room was dedicated in 1939, with a design inspired by a room in the Summer Palace in Beijing during the 18th century, Yee said.
During the holiday season, the room will have Chinese New Year scrolls and ornamental flower arrangements, a very important element of celebrations in China, she said.
These arrangements include red roses, which symbolize luck and good times, as well as bamboo, which represents the human spirit.
“It bends but never breaks,” said Yee, of Bethel Park.
Decor influences for Yee come from her father, Hoy Fung, who was one of the original donors to the room when there were not very many Chinese people living in Pittsburgh, she said.
Her father originally was from a village in southern China, and they visited the country several times as a family, the last in 1983.
Donald Mushalko, who has been chairman for the Polish Nationality Room for more than 15 years, said the Nationality Rooms are a testament to Pittsburgh's immigrants.
“It's just kind of a monument to the people that come from the different countries,” Mushalko, 82, said. “They were very, very courageous to come here.”
He said the Polish room features a Christmas tree decorated with 64 donated snowflake ornaments made out of straw and a handmade green, white and red tree skirt, which, Mushalko said, is “beautifully embroidered.”
Mushalko's mother was Polish, and he was raised learning to read in write in the language. He also taught at two universities in Poland and often visited the country with his late wife.
“It's a wonderful county, beautiful,” said McKeesport resident, who taught in the university's education department.
Saroj Bahl, chairwoman of the Indian Nationality Room Committee, said the room helps promote the Indian culture, including during the annual holiday tours.
“Every year, we try to get decorations in the room according to Indian traditions,” Bahl said.
Flowers are a very important element in Indian culture, especially yellow and orange hues, Bahl said. Indians also place a significant emphasis on light, so the room is adorned with various traditional lamps used at Indian festivals, she said.
Of Indian descent, Bahl was born in Kenya and later educated in India for three years, which helps her contribute ideas for the room.
Its design is influenced by “an ancient Indian educational tradition which reached its zenith at Nalanda University in central India during the seventh to the 12th century,” according to a description of the room on the university website.
Now a resident of Oakmont, Bahl has been chairwoman of the room for approximately 12 years. She said during the holiday season, the room is decorated with festive items commonly used in India by its diverse population.
Visitors to the Nationality Rooms also will be able to tour the Commons Room on the ground floor of the Cathedral of Learning, as well as see some of the architecture of building. Its construction was spearheaded by former university Chancellor John G. Bowman, Bruhns said.
An effort that began in 1926, completion of the building took almost 10 years because the Great Depression slowed construction, Bruhns said.
Bowman also came up with the idea of rooms that represented various cultures in Pittsburgh, thus, the Nationality Rooms program. He was assisted by former program director, Ruth Crawford Mitchell, Bruhns said.
Most of the rooms are designed to allow for classroom instruction.
One of Bruhn's favorites is the Early American room, which is not used as a classroom.
The cultures that are represented by a room on the first floor include: Czechoslovak, Italian, German, Hungarian, Polish, Irish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Swedish, Chinese, Greek, Scottish, Yugoslav, English, French, Norwegian, Russian and Syria-Lebanon.
The third floor includes: Japanese, Armenian, Early American, African Heritage, Indian, Austrian, Israel Heritage, Ukrainian, Welsh, Swiss, and Turkish.
The time period of each room is to predate the U.S. Constitution and the university's founding in 1787, Bruhn said. The oldest design concept depicts Greece in the fifth century B.C., she said.
Each room is represented by a committee, and a major initiative of many of them is to raise funds for annual summer study-abroad scholarships, Bruhns said.
Over the year, the rooms have had about 30,000 tourists, Bruhns said.
She is helping coordinate the construction and opening of the Korean room, which is expected to be ready for dedication in 2014, she said.
It takes about a decade to raise money for the construction of a room, which can be between $250,000 to $500,000, Bruhns said.
Originally from Bridgeport, W.Va., Bruhns has a vast knowledge of a variety of countries, as she lived abroad for about 15 years with her husband, Fred C. Bruhns, who was a “refugee from Hitler Germany.” He then worked as a refugee specialist for various organizations, including the United Nations, she said.
Once she settled back in the United States, she found herself with the perfect job at the Nationality Rooms, and she still enjoys it.
“I can't stop,” said Bruhns, who lives in Oakland. “It's part of me.”
Natalie Beneviat is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.
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