The model for the Korean Nationality Room at the University of Pittsburgh. Courtesy University of Pittsburgh.

The Korean Heritage Room in the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh is the first new nationality room since 2012, and it does not disappoint.  It’s an inspired meeting of classic Korean architecture and cutting-edge technology that was eight years in the making.

However, E. Maxine Bruhns, director of Pitt’s Nationality and Heritage Classrooms and Intercultural Exchange Programs, put the endeavor into perspective. “Eight years is not a lot of time compared to the first room we did, the Israel Nationality Room, which took twenty-one years,” she says. “In that respect, we’ve gotten much more efficient!”

With a price tag of more than $850,000, the Korean room, the 30th  of the famed nationality rooms housed on the first few floors of the Cathedral of Learning, is the most expensive to date. Funding came from a variety of local donors, as well as the Arumjigi Culture Keepers Foundation, Poongsan Corp. and the Korea Foundation.

Located on the first and third floors of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, the Nationality Rooms were designed to represent the various ethnic groups in the Pittsburgh area. While they’re also used as classrooms for Pitt students, the rooms are open for tours year round, and are among the top visitor destinations in the city.

At a dedication ceremony last weekend at Heinz Memorial Chapel, Bruhns was joined by Ahn Ho-Young, the national ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the United States and Chairman of the Korean Heritage Classroom Committee, David Kim.

“The best way to describe this classroom is the blending of new and old,” Kim says.  “It’s very traditional, yet contemporary.  We have an interactive 85-inch Samsung monitor, so that the professors will be able to teach with an electronic board. We had artisans who flew in to build the space—it turned out quite beautifully.”

The intent, says Bruhns, was to create something “purely Korean,” so they consulted with the University of Seoul on the specifics.

Eventually, they settled on the 600-year old main lecture hall of South Korea’s Sungkyunkwan University, called the “Myeongnyundang,” or Hall of Enlightenment, as the room’s model.

The details of the room in the Cathedral of Learning are remarkable: Handcrafted wooden phoenixes adorn the ceiling and donors’ names carved in stone in the entry corridor.  There is also a symbolic back door that faces the Heinz Memorial Chapel, which in its Korean counterpart would have led to a courtyard.

Details in the woodwork of the new Korean Nationality Room at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Korean Heritage Classroom Committee presented a ceremonial key to Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg, symbolically handing over the room to the care of the University of Pittsburgh, before celebrating with a Korean Cultural Festival.

“It’s truly exciting that we have our own Nationality Room now,” says Kim. “It highlights the relationship between the United States and South Korea.  And if you look at the number of Korean students who are studying and making their home in Pittsburgh, it really solidifies the relationship.”

The Korean Heritage Room opens up a world of new opportunities for Pitt students as well.

“My hope is that the Korean Heritage Room will become a platform from on which we will build scholarship programs to help students go to Korea and learn about the culture,” Kim says. “We’ve built the room, and we’re excited for what comes next.”

Mia Bencivenga

Mia is a Pittsburgh-based writer who sleeps with books under her pillows in hopes that they will fill her head with awesome ideas. Her obsessions include Harry Potter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and terrible...