Should you find yourself in Oakland one of these days and blessed with thirty minutes of time ripe for the unpeeling, then venture through the carved, massive red doors of Heinz Memorial Chapel and back into a remarkable piece of Pittsburgh’s history. With any luck you’ll find yourself in the hands of the effervescent wordsmith and docent extraordinaire, Robert Digby.
“Digby”, as he impishly likes to be called, welcomes spontaneous wanderers-in and those with reservations into his beloved domain with a heightened sense of occasion, as if the chapel’s splendid secrets are being revealed for the very first time. As he presses the folded brochure into your hand while leading the way down the aisle into the heart of one of the great man-made marvels of our city, know that you are about to partake in a visual feast of such beauty as to take your breath away.
Heinz Memorial Chapel, nestled on the main campus of the University of Pittsburgh, is a masterful example of Neo-Gothic architecture, echoing lines of the Indiana limestone of its slightly older sister, the Cathedral of Learning. Both buildings, along with the Steven Foster Memorial Theatre, were designed by the architect, Charles Z. Klauder.
An Architectural Wonder
According to Digby, even as it is made miniature by the extraordinary height of the Cathedral, Heinz Chapel isn’t just your ordinary chapel, thank you very much. Klauder’s design holds its own in its aspiring geometric angles, arches, and glorious windows that resonate to catch the unsuspecting eyes of passersby. It was donated as a gift to the University of Pittsburgh (then a private institution) by Henry John Heinz in a provision of his will after his death in 1919, honoring his mother, Anna Margaretta Heinz.
After several years planning the design concepts and H. J.’s original criteria incorporating the spiritual elements of education, construction on the interdenominational memorial began in 1933. Five years and millions of dollars later, Heinz Chapel was dedicated in 1938. The windows alone, Digby reveals with a whispered reverence, took two years to install, and are composed of a quarter of a million pieces of glass ranging in intensity from cobalt to vermillion and honeyed gold, at a cost of one million dollars, a fortune in those days. If that bit of history isn’t enough to stop you in your tracks on the irregular patterns of gray and apricot slate tiles lining the center aisle, Digby is prepared to dazzle you with more.
Regarding the glass in the windows, Digby might ask you, “Is glass a liquid or a solid?”, just as a teacher prods a student. One of Digby’s pearl white eyebrows might shoot up as he recalls an embarrassing tour with the head of PPG who once asked the same question of him. Digby recalls deftly retorting, “Why don’t you tell me since you are from PPG,” as the twinkle in his eyes reflects like dark amber catching rays of the midday sun.
Next he will capably explain the properties of glass and then tell you that the transept windows, designed by Western Pennsylvania native, Charles J. Connick, were installed in sets of two with the panels separated equally into male and female pictorial figures depicting events and beliefs that have shaped our world. You will learn that the panels include figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Pocahontas, Galileo, Clara Barton, and many more, as Digby cannot help but share the splendid stories set in glass.
Each set weighs 5500 pounds and rises to almost 75 feet in height, making them among the tallest anywhere in the world. Digby waits, tapping his toe, for your inevitable sigh. “Close your mouth,” he’ll say next as he explains that the exquisite multicolored fragments of glass come from far away places such as Germany, England, and even from deep in a trash heap of a three-hundred year old glass factory in Massachusetts.
The glass is thicker on the south side of the chapel to protect, balance and correct itself with the lesser light coming in from its north side. By now, your head is tilted back so that your eyes can take in the majestic beauty of the panels set like so many jewels in the limestone that makes up the structure or “crown” of the chapel, as Digby so aptly describes it.
On any given day you might walk into Heinz Chapel and hear a bagpipe played by a music student from Carnegie Mellon University who appreciates the acoustics of the chapel. Or you could catch Digby mischievously manipulate the digital buttons on the 4000-plus hidden pipes of the Opus 2176 organ that will caress the solemnity and wonder of the vertical majesty within the chapel. Those lovely notes will be echoed back into the central space by the massive hand-carved English pollard oak panels that rise some twenty feet above the gold-flecked, Egyptian marble altar.
In awe, you will finally sit down on the solid Appalachian Mountain oak benches to ponder the accomplishment of all that is Heinz Chapel. Digby will tell your feet to rest silently in appropriate reverence on the ochre cork floor, made by Pittsburgh’s own Cork Factory once located in the Strip District, which was the largest cork manufacturer in the world. Some 1500 events for 100,000 people take place at Heinz Memorial Chapel each year, including various interdenominational marriage ceremonies, memorial services, concerts and tours. For sixty-plus years, Heinz Memorial Chapel has served the people of Pittsburgh and visitors from abroad with its capacity to welcome and enrich the spirits of all who enter its realm.
As you pass back through the massive doors of Heinz Chapel to the world outside, you will possess a precious parcel of knowledge revealed through the eloquence of Digby, docent extraordinaire, who has been waiting for you to discover yet another jewel of Pittsburgh that has been here all along, right underneath his prose.
Barbara Diven Machamer is a free-lance writer and recent English Writing and Film Studies graduate from the University of Pittsburgh. Her last piece for Pop City was on filmmaker Carl Kurlander.
Pulpit and stained glass windows in apse
Detail of stained glass with image of Emily Dickinson
Heinz Chapel, facing entry doors
all photos copyright © Jonathan Greene