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Local historian helps bring Pitt Swiss Room to fruition |

Local historian helps bring Pitt Swiss Room to fruition

Jeff Himler
| Friday, April 13, 2012 12:00 a.m

PITTSBURGH — On April 22, 14 years of planning and preparations will come to fruition with the unveiling of the University of Pittsburgh’s new Swiss-themed classroom. It’s the latest addition to 28 other Nationality Rooms at Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, each reflecting in its interior design and furnishings the history and culture of a different ethnic group that has contributed to the development of western Pennsylvania.

Among those present at the invitation-only dedication ceremony will be Evelyn Baker Ruffing, a Derry Township historian and foreign language instructor who is part of the 15-member committee that has shepherded the Swiss room from concept to reality.

Ruffing, who became involved as a member of the Swiss-American Society of Pittsburgh, noted details of the dedication have been planned by the room committee with the same attention to cultural authenticity as has the design of the classroom itself.

“It’s a big event for all of us,” she said, expressing delight with the rich wood panels, ceiling and furniture that dominate the Swiss room. “The architecture is just gorgeous. You walk n there and you can’t help smiling.”

On the day of the dedication, Ruffing will join fellow committee members, university officials and Swiss diplomats from the area for a private, non-denominational prayer meeting in the finished room. At noon, they’ll join guests for the main ceremony in the university’s Heinz Chapel. Plans are to fill the chapel with flowering geraniums, a plant that is a common element of private gardens and community beautification projects in Switzerland.

According to Ruffing, local growers are “pushing them to bloom. They’ll be a month earlier than normal.”

Ruffing has German rather than Swiss roots, but she became steeped in all things Swiss while completing graduate studies on a scholarship at the University of Zurich from 1958 to 1964.

“I became fascinated with the country. I had a double major in Swiss ethnology as well as Germanic languages,” she said, noting, “Both of my sons were born there.”

Ruffing has returned many times to Switzerland through the years. If the timing is right, she can enjoy the nation’s many blossoming geraniums.

“That whole country in summer is just abloom in flowers, and the geranium is the most popular,” she said. “In the cool, mountain areas they really bloom.”

Other elements associated with Switzerland will come into play during the April 22 dedication festivities at Pitt. Once the program at the chapel has concluded, guests will be led to the nearby Cathedral of Learning by two Swiss Bernese mountain dogs. In their native land, “they’re used for herding sheep in the summertime,” Ruffing said of the breed, which has a thick, weather-resistant coat.

At a reception in the Cathedral’s large Gothic-styled Commons Room, participants will snack on traditional Swiss cookies and enjoy musical entertainment — featuring large alphorns.

Finally, the guests will line up to visit the Swiss classroom before it is later opened for tours by the public. Local residents who have been invited to attend the dedication include many of Ruffing’s current or former language students — among them local attorney and Derry Township resident Ron Saffron and Wayne Douglas, CEO of Latrobe-based Extramet Products, along with his wife. The company, a leading tungsten carbide manufacturer, was founded in Switzerland in 1981.

Ruffing has applied her expertise in Switzerland’s traditional architecture and ethnology, gained during her years living and studying in the country, to help ensure the authenticity of the design and materials used to transform the modern Pitt classroom into a circa 1500, Swiss-styled interior.

“Pitt was founded in 1787, so all the Nationality Rooms must precede that date” in their period decorations and furnishings, Ruffing explained.

The Swiss room is inspired by a room from Fraum?nster Abbey in Z?rich, which dates from 1489.

According to Ruffing, the committee also “got a lot of ideas” from Zurich’s Landesmuseum, which displays a typical “common room” from this late medieval period.

The finished classroom features wood furnishings, including four handmade trestle tables and 26 rustic “stabellen” chairs similar in appearance to Pennsylvania’s Amish-crafted furniture. They represent, respectively, the four linguistic regions of Switzerland and the nation’s 26 cantons, or states. While there are four recognized cultural/linguistic groups within the country —…German, French, Italian and Raeto-Romansch — Ruffing pointed out, “There are 27 different dialects of Swiss German,” in all of which she is fluent.

The back of each chair is carved with a symbol representing one of the cantons. Several of the symbols also are featured in the room’s stained-glass windows.

“They’re gorgeous. Since the room is largely wood, the color just jumps out at you,” Ruffing said of the stained glass. It was created by artisan David Houser of Moatsville, W. Va.

Ruffing took part in the committee’s quest to equip the Pitt classroom with a “kachelofen,” a tile oven that often was the primary means of heating a traditional Swiss dwelling.

According to Ruffing, such an oven “was always in the best room of the house.” She explained it typically was placed against a wall and had a rear opening that communicated with an adjacent side room, where it would be fed with round bundles of gathered wood for fuel.

While the oven in the Pitt classroom isn’t a working model, it is a recreation of one dating from 1647 that is now displayed in the Winterthur Museum north of Zurich.

Ruffing noted there is a Pittsburgh connection to the oven: It originally was manufactured by the Graaf family, whose descendants include Ed Graf — one of the owners of The Priory, a former monastery that has been converted into an historic hotel on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. Graf underwrote reproduction of the oven for the room at Pitt.

Once the members of the room committee decided on the historic Graaf oven as a model, they soon realized that obtaining a similar one in Switzerland and having it shipped stateside would not be feasible, either logistically or financially. “The insurance was outrageous and so was the cost of the shipping,” Ruffing said, noting the oven “is tile, so it can break.”

Instead, the committee had a kachelofen reproduced in Pittsburgh by Anders Anderson of Red Clay Tile Works with assistance from Don Marchese of Custom Wood and Laminate, who made the framework for the oven, and Gina Chalfant of White Swan Illuminations, who completed the decorative “antique” painting.

Ruffing noted some of the designs portrayed on the original oven were changed for Pitt’s version to include an assortment of Swiss animals and flowers, including the edelweiss plant known to many through a song in “The Sound of Music.” The oven also bears the heraldic emblem of the Graaf family as well as a depiction of the Swiss legend of Wilhelm Tell.

Ruffing took a leading role in designing and producing a ceremonial room key that will be presented to Pitt’s chancellor, Mark A. Nordenberg, during the dedication program.

According to Ruffing, the key is based on two ancient papal keys of St. Peter that are symbols of the Swiss cantons of Obwalden and Nidwalden. Those cantons were formed from the larger Unterwalden, one of three original states that united in 1291 to form the nucleus of what would become the modern Swiss Confederation.

Ruffing explained the combined key created for Pitt’s Swiss room incorporates an ornamental bow representing the Obwalden symbol and a bit representing the Nidwalden symbol.

Baker devised the combined design, which was rendered into a pattern by James C. Shugars, a fellow Derry Township resident. K Casting of Latrobe cast the key in solid brass, and William F. Simpson of Derry’s 18th Century Hardware applied antiquing to give the metal an appropriately aged look.

While the Nationality Rooms are one of Pitt’s unique showpieces and are open to the public for tours, they are also used as working classrooms. So, the furnishings must be designed to hold up to repeated use by students, and modern conveniences must be artfully concealed.

“Everything technical has to be hidden,” Ruffing explained. “A projection screen slides down in front of the blackboard” — a retro element that Pitt requires in all its Nationality Rooms.

In another example, she said, overhead LED lighting fixtures have been inset in floral rosette designs — a traditional decoration in Swiss woodcrafts — that are spaced along the room’s ceiling beams.

Though pine and oak both are favored woods of Swiss craftsmen, Ruffing indicated white oaks was favored for the classroom because it is more durable. “It’s closer-grained and harder” compared to pine, she said. She noted much of the room’s wood came from a massive 6-foot-diameter oak that was felled in Kentucky.

The room’s trestle tables, chairs and other wood items have been custom-made by Richard Sink of Mountaineer Woodworking in French Creek, W. Va. His mother, Patricia, and wife, Sarah, completed painting of the chairbacks and the room’s decorative frieze, one of the last elements to be installed.

Richard Sink’s qualifications for the job include having served as an apprentice under Swiss carver Edward Flor. During a trip to Lucerne, Switzerland, in 2009, Ruffing additionally had Sink’s work endorsed by Swiss architect Justin Ruessli, who designed the plan for the Pitt room as one of several architects providing services for the project.

“We were lucky to find him,” Ruffing said of Sink. “He saw the notice somewhere that we were looking for a woodcrafter and called up. We went down to see his work, and it just hit right on the nail.”

While space for each Nationality Room is provided by Pitt, representatives from the local ethnic community associated with each room are responsible for designing and funding renovation of the classroom as a gift to the university.

In December 1998, an initial deed bequest of $5,000 was donated to Pitt to reserve the Cathedral of Learning’s Room 321 for the Swiss room. According to Ruffing, the room committee

originally envisioned a budget of about $150,000 for its renovation project, but the figure quickly grew to more than twice that amount.

Progress “was really slow for a long time. Money was a big factor,” she said. “”We solicited for donations like crazy.”

Gradually, those fundraising efforts paid off. More than 330 individual donors and 14 institutional donors have contributed money for the project, with the Swiss Confederation chipping in a share. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has Swiss roots, is among several honorary members of the Swiss room committee. He contributed to the fundraising efforts by donating signed items for an auction.

A sizable donation was received from Samuel Isaly of the Pittsburgh-based family that immigrated from Switzerland in the 1860s. Originally ice cream-makers, they are still known for the Klondike ice cream bar as well as chipped ham, barbeque sauce and a chain of restaurants that once dotted the region.

Samuel Isaly contributed a total of $35,000 to the room fund, including a matching challenge that spurred the Swiss-American Society of Pittsburgh to collect an additional $37,000.

The stabellen chairs were symbolically auctioned off for sponsorship rights, adding $26,000 to the committee’s fund. Ruffing “bought” a chair representing the Schaffhausen canton — which has a steinbock, a horned mountain goat, featured on its state flag.

Once the committee turns over the key to the completed room, the university will assume responsibility for maintaining it. But the committee will have the additional role of raising money for a scholarship that will allow students from Switzerland to attend Pitt or American students at Pitt to study abroad in Switzerland — as Ruffing did 50 years ago.

“The emphasis on the scholarships is on technology, and Switzerland excels at that,” she noted.

Ruffing said the things she admires most about Switzerland are its people and its visual appeal — both in its natural scenery and its well-planned communities.

“The people are very disciplined and keep to the rules,” she said. “Switzerland runs like a Rolex watch because the people all mesh together and make it run.

She added, “You can’t have an ugly building there. They have building codes that are very strict. There are areas where the slope of the roof on a building has to match the slope of the nearby mountain.”

For information on touring Pitt’s Nationality Rooms, visit or call 412-624-6000.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff reporter. You can contact Jeff by email at or via Twitter .

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