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The plans received strong resistance from the community and from some university officials, who felt it was too tall for the city.Local legend states that to counteract this resistance, Bowman ordered that the construction of the walls would start at the top floor and work its way down, so the project could not be canceled.The building contains noted examples of stained glass, stone, wood, and iron work and is often used by the university in photographs, postcards, and other advertisements.

The Cathedral of Learning houses the Department of Philosophy, Other departments in the Cathedral include English, Religious Studies, Statistics, Theatre Arts, and the School of Social Work which maintains the highest classrooms in the building located on the 23rd floor.

Floors 37–40 are closed to the general public, as they contain electrical wiring for the building, as well as the Babcock Room, a large conference room on the 40th floor used for meetings, seminars, and special events and which provides a panoramic view of downtown Pittsburgh and the rest of the university.

The 40th floor balcony also houses a nesting pair of Peregrine falcons. Golden lights, dubbed "victory lights," surround the outside of the highest floors and are lit following Pitt football wins and other notable victories, giving the upper part of the Cathedral an amber glow.

On July 26, 1940, as World War II was starting, a bomb threat was made against the structure with extra guards being posted to secure it and the authorities not ruling out possible wartime sabotage. The building had at least 12 floors dedicated for military use from 1943 until 1945.

During the war effort, the Cathedral was assigned to house, feed and instruct roughly 1,000 of the Army Air Corps (forerunner of today's U. Fundraising for this project came in many forms, including donations from industries, corporations, individuals and foreign governments.

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