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Pittsburgh immigration Swiss room opens in Cathedral of Learning



The carved chairs in the Swiss Room have the cantonal coats of arms on the back.

The carved chairs in the Swiss Room have the cantonal coats of arms on the back.

A long-cherished dream of the local Swiss community came to fruition at the end of April, with the inauguration of a “Swiss Room” at the University of Pittsburgh.

It brings to 29 the number of Nationality Rooms in the university’s Cathedral of Learning, which are described on its website as “expressions of timeless human values, representing the diverse heritages of the peoples who built Pittsburgh”.

The idea of a Swiss room was first raised in the 1970s, retired professor Heinz Kunz told swissinfo.ch. But little happened until the 1996, when Kunz, by then honorary Swiss consul in Pittsburgh, revived the idea.

A committee was founded in 1998, and the project finally got underway. But it took a long time to raise the necessary finance. Kunz had hoped to get at least some financial support from the Swiss authorities, just to prime the pump, but this came to nothing.

Nevertheless, the money gradually came together, not least thanks to three major benefactors and contributions from numerous other donors, including Swiss people from all over the world. By 2012 a total of $340,000 had been collected.

One of the donors was Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team, whose great-great-grandfather emigrated from the Emmental in 1873. His donation came from the auction of signed articles.

Swiss emigrants

If the nationality rooms commemorate the peoples who built Pittsburgh, it was certainly high time for the Swiss to have a room of their own.

Pennsylvania was one of the first destinations of Swiss emigrants, and for about a century was one of the main ones. They founded the colony of Pequea as long ago as 1710. Of the 25-30,000 estimated Swiss who had moved to the United States by 1820, most settled in Pennsylvania and the two Carolinas.

One major influx in both the 18th and 19th centuries were the Amish and Mennonite religious communities fleeing religious persecution.

Pennsylvania today has the third largest population of Swiss Americans in the US. There are about 74,000 people with Swiss roots living in the area of Pittsburgh and West Virginia, while in Pittsburgh itself there are between 3000 and 3500.

 

Swiss skills

The Swiss Nationality Room Committee was able to draw on a range of Swiss knowhow. The architect Justin Rüssli of Lucerne agreed to design the room, and he was joined by local architect Stephen Altherr, who has Swiss roots.

The nationality rooms have to reflect their particular cultures at some time before 1787, the year the university was founded.

The Swiss room is modelled on the late 15th century “Zurich Room”, originally in the Fraumünster Convent, and now reconstructed in the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. The version in Pittsburgh includes a typical Swiss tiled stove, leaded glass windows, and carved wooden furniture. The 26 chairs each bear one of the coats of arms of the Swiss cantons, and the four tables represent the country’s four languages.

It also has on display a Latin map of Switzerland, dating from 1720.

Like everything else in the room, the stove was made locally, but based on one that is now on show in Wülflingen Castle in Winterthur. The original was made in 1647 by the Graf family, one of whose descendants, Ed Graf, lives in Pittsburgh and acted as intermediary.

Showcase for Switzerland

The room, like the others in the Cathedral of Learning, is designed to be used as a classroom, and as such is fitted out – very discreetly – with the latest technology.

The main theme of the room is education and the long history of public schooling in Switzerland, using the 18th century educationalists Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi as examples.

It is also designed to celebrate Swiss values such as democracy, justice and peace.

François Barras, Swiss Consul-General in New York, who took part in the opening ceremony, spoke of the importance of education and research for both Switzerland and the US.

“The Swiss Room will help to deepen relations between them and open up new ways to cooperation,” he said.

But the room will also be a tourist attraction: it is hoped to make Switzerland more visible to people in Pittsburgh.

Kunz summed up the inauguration as a truly happy day, “crowning many years of hard work”.

"I am glad for all the people who were involved in the project, but also for future generations who will now be able to visit this room, and learn something about the basic values and traditions and the heritage of Switzerland."

Pennsylvania and Switzerland

Many of the early Swiss emigrants to the US settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th century.

Some of the first settlers were members of the Mennonite and Amish religious communities fleeing persecution.

The state today ranks third for the number of inhabitants with Swiss roots.

Footballer Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers is one example: his great-great grandfather emigrated from the Emmental in 1873.

The “Hudson hero”, pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who landed his plane on the Hudson river in 2009, is said also to have Swiss roots: his forefathers left canton Bern in 1737 and settled in Berks county, Pennsylvania.

The Swiss-American Society of Pittsburgh was founded in 1962 and chartered in 1966.

Its current membership consists of about 75 families, mainly from Pittsburgh and the surrounding area.

Having established the Swiss Room, it now wants to establish a fund for scholarships to enable Pittsburgh University students to study in Switzerland.

There are 14 Swiss companies established in the Pittsburgh area, including ABB, UBS and Acutronic.

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Cathedral of Learning

The Cathedral of Learning is a protected monument and landmark in Pittsburgh.

Built in Gothic style and started in the late 1920s, it does indeed resemble a cathedral.

At 163 meters, it is the tallest university building in the western hemisphere.

It has 29 Nationality Rooms, each dedicated to a particular country and fitted out accordingly.

They are supposed not only to celebrate the traditions of the countries, but to promote contact between people of different origins.
 
But they are not merely tourist attractions: they are used for lectures, and are equipped with the latest technology.

The Swiss Room was inaugurated on April 22, 2012.

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(with input from Rita Emch in Pittsburgh), swissinfo.ch


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