The Schenley Hotel and Apartments
The Schenley Hotel, located between Fifth Avenue and Forbes Avenue at the intersection with Bigelow Boulevard, was built in 1898. The hotel, described as "Pittsburgh's class hotel of the early 20th Century, was sold to the University of Pittsburgh in 1956. It is now the school's Student Union building, known as the William Pitt Union. The building is one of the finest pieces of architecture in the Oakland area, a landscape dotted with several early 20th Century landmark structures.
Built on land once owned by Mary Schenley, the Beaux-Arts skyscraper hotel was the keystone of Franklin Nicola’s dream of Oakland as a center for culture, art and education. With help from industrialists Andrew W. Mellon, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, George Westinghouse and H.J. Heinz, Nicola's dream became a reality, and it began with the Schenley Hotel. Around the hotel, the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institute of Technology, as well as several other cultural attractions, began to emerge.
Full of marble, chandeliers and Louis XV architecture, the Schenley Hotel quickly became Pittsburgh's home to the great and the near-great. Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Dwight D. Eisenhower all were guests at the Schenley. Singer-actress Lillian Russell lived in suite 437 and married Pittsburgh publisher Alexander Moore in the French Room (now a dining room on the first floor). Dramatic tenor Enrico Caruso and his entourage occupied seven suites during their stay. Sarah Bernhardt, Nelson Eddy, Jeannette MacDonald, Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy all stayed at the Schenley.
The Schenley Hotel was not just a place for the rich and famous. It was a popular place for marriages, and a place where one could dine on the best cuisine of the day. It was also a place where Pittsburgh power brokers met, and many decisions that left lasting impact on the growth of the city where made in the decorative halls of the Schenley. The formation of the United States Steel Corporation was celebrated during the "Meal of Millionaires" in 1901. Later in 1914, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) was organized at the Schenley Hotel.
The year of 1909 was a time that altered the future of the Schenley Hotel forever. This was the year that Forbes Field opened just down the street and the University of Pittsburgh moved from it's Northside location to Oakland. From that time on, the "Waldorf of Pittsburgh" gradually became the home of the National League baseball players in town to play the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now added to the register were names such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Casey Stengel, Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby. The deals struck over dinner at the Schenley Hotel Lounge now included baseball trades.
For the next 40-plus years the Schenley continued to operate, but on a less grand scale. In 1922, an ambitious $7 million plan was launched to turn the Hotel Schenley into a "galaxy of the finest and most modern metropolitan structures" by building apartments adjoining the hotel. In 1924, the new Schenley Apartments, five connecting buildings in a new-type housing development, were ready for occupancy. Apartments were priced at $150 and up.
Despite the initial success of the Schenley Apartments and the tradition of excellence offered at the Schenley Hotel, the growth of the University of Pittsburgh and the many medical centers in the Oakland area began to take a toll on the Schenley's business. Pittsburgh's Renaissance I brought modern hotels to downtown Pittsburgh and, ironically, Frank Nicola’s dream of an Oakland civic center turned out to be a death knell for the Hotel Schenley. The turn-of-the-century marvel had been built in rural Pittsburgh, but the suburban atmosphere soon changed. By the 1950s, the Schenley was surrounded by hospitals, educational facilities, concert halls and private clubs, with no additional room for parking to serve the hotel’s mobile guests.
In 1956, the hotel was sold to the University of Pittsburgh to serve as a residence hall and it's student union. The Schenley Apartments were turned into dormitories and the five-building facility was renamed the Schenley Quadrangle. One million dollars were spent to renovate the old hotel, which was renamed Schenley Hall. Shortly after this, during the height of the Cold War in September 1959, the Schenley Hall ballroom was the site of a luncheon for Nikita Khrushchev, chairman of the Soviet Union, part of his trans-continental tour.
As the student population of the Pittsburgh campus grew to in excess of 30,000, it became clear that the grand structure needed an overhaul. In 1980, Schenley Hall underwent a $13.9 million, 18-month renovation and restoration project. The upper seven upper floors were transformed into modern offices for students and the student affairs administration. The tenth floor, which had been added several years after the hotel was first built, was removed to relieve stress on the building.
The turn-of-the-century character of the main floor was revisited through careful restoration of the Louis XV mirrored ballroom, the lower lounge that had enclosed the original Bigelow Boulevard-side porch thirteen years after the hotel was originally built, and the marbled-wall former hotel lobby, now called the Tansky Family Lounge. In addition, the rarely used basement was transformed into a functional lower level with a new Forbes Avenue Entrance and plaza. The original wooden hotel room doors salvaged from the upstairs renovation were used for the walls of the lower level student recreation room, now called "Nordy's Place". The renovations were completed in 1983 and the building was renamed the William Pitt Union.
The Schenley Hotel, now over 110-plus years old, is as it was when it was first built, one of the centerpiece attractions of the Oakland area. Although the clientele may have changed from Pittsburgh's upper class citizens to the University of Pittsburgh's student population, the venerable building still serves it's purpose as the hub around which the Oakland area revolves.
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