For former Shaler Area student, Pitt's Nationality Rooms aren't Finnish yet
When Nathan Fix, 27, first toured the Nationality Rooms inside the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning as a Shaler Area middle-schooler, he wondered why there wasn’t a Finnish Room representing his heritage.
Now, he and his mother are working to add the room to the university’s roster of 30 classrooms representing the cultures of ethnic groups that settled in Western Pennsylvania.
Each year, nearly 30,000 visit the Nationality Rooms located on the first and third floors of the 42-story Gothic Revival tower, according to the Nationality Rooms website. Pitt opened its first Nationality Rooms, representing the Russian, Scottish, German and Swedish cultures, in 1938.
Nationality room committees are responsible for the designing, fundraising and building of their rooms. The Finnish Room Committee aims to raise a total of $400,000; they have raised around $110,000 through events, donations and proceeds from sales of Nathan’s band, the Pittsburgh Finns Ensemble’s $5 album “Hauska tavata.”
The Finnish Room Committee has worked for more than 30 years on the project. Nathan, of Aspinwall, joined the committee as its music director in 2016 after he started Finnish lessons with the group’s Chairwoman Seija Cohen at the University of Pittsburgh. His mother, Karen, of Shaler, joined soon thereafter as programs director.
The classroom design is based on a rural farmhouse “central to the community and central to education,” Nathan said.
“It does have an open sky, so it does show stars when you walk in. The sky is open. And then there are white birch trees on the wall when you come in. … There is a sauna facing you as you walk in,” Karen said, of the painted and projected elements.
The “Kalevala,” a 19th-Century Finnish epic poem will adorn plates within the classroom.
“Kids study it in elementary school. My mom actually has jewelry based on the story that she bought in Finland. They use it everywhere. In their pottery, in their painting dishes, in their jewelry, in their rugs,” said Karen, who originally hails from Houghton-Hancock, Mich., an area with a high Finnish population. Moreover, Nathan’s father — Karen’s husband —frequently traveled to Finland for business.
Nathan said that committee Treasurer Sally Morton purchased a Finnish log home from Minnesota. Volunteer Frank Eld of Idaho visited the home to ensure its authenticity and transported the materials to Pittsburgh so that they could be put to use in the Nationality Room.
“Frank is a huge resource to our project. He is a woodworker, but he also studies the art of Finnish log construction. And he studies and researches and tours the country looking for old Finnish log cabins. He can identify them by their structural characteristics,” Nathan explained.
Karen said the project will showcase the Finnish heritage because “they are just so super intimate and private people that you don’t know anything about them.”
Nathan said that where we reside shapes how we view the world.
“We can’t see the rest of the world unless we go and travel or unless you visit the Nationality Rooms, essentially. The Nationality Rooms kind of serve as an immediate cultural experience that you can have just by walking in. This is a national or a world project, not just a Pittsburgh project. Again, it’s the fact that the cathedral is such an important resource for preserving culture.”
To purchase Pittsburgh Finns Ensemble’s album: pittsburgh finnsensemble.bandcamp.com/releases or to donate, visit pittsburghfinns.net and click “how to contribute.”
Donors are currently matching the committee’s funds if they reach $20,000.
Erica Cebzanov is a Tribune-Review contributor.