Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

A hotel is more than a place where people seek shelter, conduct business, entertain, work, play, make friends, and, perhaps, fall in love. It is so much more. It is a stage on which both small and large dramas of daily life are played out – where individuals celebrate the important occa­sions of their lives or where they may seek solitude.

While all hotels are interest­ing places, a grand hotel is a collection of lore and legend. Built in the prosperous open­ing decades of this century, great hotels that survive retain a grandeur and elegance that cannot be duplicated today. They are often compared to grand ladies, and like grand ladies, they were born, not made. They are known for their style, their ability to command attention and to awe. Their reputations are enhanced as they gracefully accept the passing of years. They mirror the values, social mores, economic climate, fashion, and politics of their times. As the years pass, they inevitably become an integral part of the city around them. The best of the grand old ho­tels have been able to combine the opulence of the past with the technology of today to create a style – a presence – that remains unique.

Every major city dain,s at least one grande dame. In New York, it’s The Plaza. In Washington, D.C., the Wil­lard. For Philadelphia, the Bellevue. Chicagoans love the Drake, while Bostonians covet the Copley Plaza. San Fran­cisco has the St. Francis. And Pittsburgh boasts of the William Penn Hotel.

Completed in 1916 at a cost of six million dollars, it was the last building venture of indus­trialist Henry Clay Frick. Frick envisioned the William Penn as Pittsburgh’s showplace, designed to rival the great hotels of Europe in Old World style and with the sophisti­cated technology offered by the twentieth century. It was to be a home away from home to the wealthy capitalists who traveled in their plush, private railroad cars, accompanied by retinues of servants. However, in spite of Judge Thomas Mel­lon’s comment in 1869 that “Any man who cannot get rich in Pittsburgh is a fool,” there simply were not enough mil­lionaires traveling to Pitts­burgh to fill a thousand-room hotel. Hence, from its very beginning, the William Penn Hotel relied heavily on the conventioneer and the sales­man.

A bustling manufacturing city in 1916, Pittsburgh was riding the crest of the indus­trial revolution. Mills thun­dered at peak capacity, spewing forth dirt and smoke, to provide steel for a growing, young country and a world at war. While fortunes were be­ing amassed by many indus­tries and individuals, steel was the undisputed king and Pitts­burgh was its kingdom. “Hell with the lid off” was not con­sidered a disparaging descrip­tion of the city by Pittsburghers, but an acknowl­edgement of the importance of its diverse manufacturing interests. Pittsburgh was made up of both millionaires and immigrants – both classes hard-working and pragmatic, and for which business was business – whose goal was the same: to make money. There was little time for luxury and no need of frills. Nonetheless, on March 9, 1916, the William Penn Hotel ceremoniously unfurled a dozen flags fes­tooning the building and opened its doors. Throngs of Pittsburghers turned out to welcome the new hotel. The grand opening did not go unrecorded.

Heralded as “not only abreast of, but ahead of the times” by National Architect magazine, its opening gar­nered newspaper headlines throughout the country! At home, the Pittsburgh Gazette Times exuberantly described the hotel as” … a house of a thousand guest rooms, with­out need of candles, which after months of tireless energy, the employment of every known art and craft, the call­ing into service of every inge­nuity of man, is now a fact for Pittsburgh, and as such, is not only a magnificent illustration of the enterprise of Pittsburgh men, but its opening is an epoch in the history of this city as a community.”

An epoch it was.

Crowds marveled at the opulent Palm Court Lobby, with its walnut pillars, floors of green Italian marble and magnificent ceiling, reputedly copied from the Palace at Fon­tainebleau. Pittsburgh society filled the breathtaking Italian Renaissance style ballroom, appointed with ornate gilt molding, crystal chandeliers, and Grecian-style friezes. Dinner was presented in the Italian, Elizabethan, and Geor­gian dining rooms, each deco­rated with mirrored and frescoed walls, vaulted ceil­ings, and chandeliers of hand­cut crystal.

Considered the most mod­ern hotel of its time, the Wil­liam Penn was designed by Janssen and Abbott, one of the finest architectural teams of the period. The Italianate style structure was built of creamy terra cotta, topped by red brick over steel frame. Pittsburgh’s noted architectural historian James Van Trump described it as ” … delicate and restrained and definitely of the best twen­tieth century type. Its simplic­ity gives it a definitely Pittsburgh flavor.”

On opening night, the William Penn Hotel’s manag­ing director Charles A. Blanchard and his zealous staff welcomed their distinguished guests who were dazzled by the magnificence of the new hostelry, including Mayor Joseph Armstrong, actress Lillian Russell, William Penn (a direct lineal descendant of the founder of the Common­wealth), and hoteliers repre­senting the nation’s finest properties.

Opening night visitors marveled at the modern guest rooms which offered the most advanced amenities of the day: iced drinking water on tap; “certified” lighting; and electrically operated clocks that were attached to a master timepiece giving Western Un­ion time, so that “patrons would never be at a loss to know just what time it is.” A telephone in every room was connected to a master switch­board which employed thirty operators and was larger than that used for the entire town of Johnstown. Perhaps most importantly, each room fea­tured a private bathroom -in an age when most Americans still used outdoor privies and most hotels offered shared facilities. (Even Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, built in 1907, advertised “Single rooms­ – $2.50 per day, with bath $4.00-$6.00.”) The William Penn’s rates ranged from $2.50 for a standard guest room to a stag­gering sum of fifty dollars for one night’s lodging in the seven room State Suite – in which Henry Clay Frick stayed on opening night.

Essentially a self-contained city in miniature, the hotel included private quarters for staff, a separate “bachelors floor” that boasted a private sitting room and library, and a complete printing facility to produce advertising and menus. A bakery on the sec­ond basement supplied guests with fresh bread and pastries every day. The staff included a butcher, baker, “candlestick maker,” silversmith and, of course, a locksmith. The lower lobby featured a barbershop with twenty chairs, a manicure parlor, a drug store, and a billiards room. The opening required a staff of eight hun­dred employees, among them luminaries of the day, such as chef Georges Vivian of The Plaza in New York, maitre d’hotel William Liebrich of London’s posh Savoy, and chief clerk W. I. Allen of the Bellevue-Stratford, Philadel­phia.

The rooms were furnished with reproductions of the Louis XVI and Adams periods, in walnut, mahogany, or white enamel, by the M. H. Picker­ing Company of Pittsburgh. Each piece of furniture, as well as each drapery panel and every one of the sixty-three thousand pieces of silver bore the William Penn crest.

Even the least apparent aspects were hailed by the local press. The Pittsburgh Gazette Times reported that, “all cement used was made at the Universal Portland Cement Company, just outside the city. All steel was rolled at Home­stead, and fabricated at Am­bridge and shipped to the building by Pittsburgh con­cerns. All steam and water piping was made by the E. M. Byers Company … all bath tubs and bathroom fixtures were made in Pittsburgh works … there is scarcely a feature of this huge structure … that is not a product of Pittsburgh.”

As Frick had anticipated, the William Penn Hotel quickly became the social center of the city. Scions of Pittsburgh’s industrial and banking families convened in its board rooms, the darlings and debutantes of reigning society glided gaily across its ballroom floors, and virtually every important visi­tor to the city slept in its bed­rooms.

Former Pres. Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Pittsburgh for the annual Moose conven­tion in 1917, and was greeted by hundreds of cheering Pitts­burghers in the hotel’s lobby, where he urged them to “buck up for America.” Never mind that his own four sons along with Pittsburgh’s sons would soon be marching off to war. Ironically, two years later, another president, William Howard Taft, would write a letter in this lobby, accepting with much pride an invitation to author the forward for Roosevelt’s biography.

The tempo of life quickened in Pittsburgh during the twen­ties, typifying what was occur­ring throughout the nation. According to author Stefan Lorant, “Pittsburgh at the end of the war was not a beautiful place to look at. Its buildings spread out without planning, its streets were congested, its rivers polluted. Smoke and smog, the curse since earliest times, blackened the skies, the curtains and everything white. Flood waters inundated the streets at the Point at regular intervals.” Undaunted by dirt and grime, Pittsburghers re­lentlessly continued to develop their beloved city. Its many bridges and tunnels were either under construction or in the planning stages. New office buildings were shaping the city’s skyline and the Uni­versity of Pittsburgh’s Cathe­dral of Learning, begun in 1926, would eventually be the focal point of Oakland, Pitts­burgh’s first suburb. Both the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad announced major expan­sion programs, and plans for an airport had been unveiled.

Although Prohibition had drastically cut profits in the nation’s hotel industry, the William Penn Hotel thrived. Rumor had it that the hotel had sold its liquor supply to a Pittsburgh millionaire, who stored it in the basement of his Shadyside mansion. Stock in United States Steel – always a fair barometer of Pittsburgh’s economy – would reach $232 a share by the decade’s end. When business was good in Pittsburgh, business was good at the William Penn Hotel.

Since its beginnings, the hotel has played a part in several “firsts” for the city; the world’s first radio station, KDKA, began broadcasting from the hotel in 1922 (see
Live from Pittsburgh …” by Linda Kowall in the spring 1990 issue) and would soon be followed by others. The finest clubs established their head­quarters in the William Penn, including the AMEN Corner, the Variety Club and the pres­tigious Pittsburgh Club.

The Nixon Theatre – which billed itself “the world’s perfect playhouse” (see “Chin Up! Smile! Keep ’em Happy!” by John L. Marsh in the winter 1991 edition) – was across the street, and many of the star­ring actors and actresses stayed at the hotel. Mary Pick­ford, America’s sweetheart, slept on satin sheets in the hotel’s French Suite. Pola Ne­gri, who would only travel with her mother, followed. Socialite Elsa Maxwell traded gossip in the Italian Terrace Room, and Flo Ziegfeld held court in the Palm Court Lobby. Composer Jerome Kern wrote Why Do I Love You, for his musical Showboat, in his suite, and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontane waited for the waters to recede when they were stranded at the hotel during the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day flood.

Business at the William Penn was so good, in fact, that when hotel magnate Eugene Eppley secured a controlling interest in 1928, he immedi­ately began the construction of the Grant Street annex, which added six hundred rooms. With sixteen hundred rooms, the William Penn was the largest hotel between New York and Chicago. It also be­came a major convention facil­ity for Pittsburgh. “The Greater William Penn,” ob­served the Pittsburgh Post Ga­zette, “will provide an exhibition hall for machinery and many other kinds of large displays. It has a whole floor devoted to receptions and ballrooms, where as many as 2,800 persons can be served at one time. It has provided space on the lower floors for shops and other forms of con­venient service that make it a small city in itself. The most famous decorators and design­ers were secured to plan some of the rooms so that utility and style might go hand in hand. Some of the effects that have been attained are astonish­ingly beautiful.”

One of the most beautiful was the striking Art Deco style Urban Room which crowned the Grant Street addition. Designed by, and named for, Joseph Urban, a set and light­ing designer for the Ziegfield Follies, the room features black Carrara glass walls and a hand painted “Tree of Life” ceiling mural. Upon completion of the Grant Street addition, Eppley christened the hotel “Pitts­burgh’s Welcome to the World.”

Eugene Eppley was, per­haps, one of the most colorful owners of the William Penn. Born in 1884 in Akron, Ohio, he obtained his first job at the Hotel William McKinley, where he moved furniture at the princely sum of twelve and a half cents an hour. In true Horatio Alger fashion, he worked his way up to manage­ment of his own hotel, and by the end of the 1920s Eppley’s hotel chain included twenty­-two properties across the country. He was one of the first of a new breed of hotel­iers. He understood the im­portance of professionalism and service to guests, but also realized the significance of marketing those attributes. To his employees he stressed the importance of treating the hotel patron as a “guest” and not as a “customer.” “When a man gets only what he pays for in one of our hotels,” he said, “he is merely a customer, never a guest. Watch for chances to do special unlooked for, unexpected things which add to the comfort to those within our doors….” These courtesies included things as simple as a friendly good morning, a welcoming smile, or a complimentary second cup of coffee.

During the Great Depres­sion, eighty percent of the hotels in the United States filed for bankruptcy. Through prudent management, Eppley was able to hold on to most of his interests, but he lost the William Penn in the mid-1930s. Fortunately, he managed to retain stock in the hotel­ – which the new investors who assumed control of the William Penn had deemed worthless. He later used this stock as a base and was able to recapture control of the hotel. Although the World War II years would prove prosperous for his other hotels, Eppley saw ownership of the William Penn Hotel as “the ultimate in personal tri­umph and professional suc­cess,” and vowed to return to Pittsburgh. He did succeed and reassumed management in 1951. Eppley’s own verse on his Christmas card of that year best described his feelings.

O, once this was Home
But I left it to roam
When the skies were all cloudy and gray
Homecoming is grand
With the Penn in my hand
I write you this greeting today.

Pittsburgh in the thirties was hard hit by the Great Depression. U.S. Steel stock plunged from a record high of $232 in 1929 to twenty-two dollars in 1932. Pittsburghers, the “can do” workers of the country, suddenly found there was not much work to be done-at least not much that would pay. Life seemed to become as dreary as the land­scape; Pittsburghers sorely needed to be amused. Upon repeal of Prohibition in Octo­ber 1933, hotel management announced the opening of the Chatterbox Supper Club for “debutantes and the younger dancing men.” Since its open­ing, the hotel had offered dancing every night and se­date tea dances on Wednes­days and Saturdays, as well as violin and harp recitals. How­ever, just as the times had changed, so had the music­ – and the waltzing of the early years gave way to the excite­ment of the big band era and those who best characterized it: Don Bestor and Ramona, Orrin Tucker with Wee Bonnie Baker, Max Adkins, Earl (“Mu­sic Maestro, Please”) Truxell, Jimmy Joy, and Billy Catizone and His Men of Music. And there was Kay Kaiser and his “College of Musical Knowl­edge,” and the Nick Lomakin Trio and Jack Pettis, whose “girl singer” Dolores Reade later married comedian Bob Hope. (Hotel legend had it that Bob Hope proposed to his wife in the Palm Court Lobby. When the Hopes recently returned to the hotel to attend a fundraiser, Wayne Bo­dington, general manager, asked Dolores Hope if the story was true. “No,” she Laughed, “I didn’t meet him until I arrived in New York. But its a good story – go ahead and use it. I won’t tell.”)

Of course, the Urban Room, Italian Terrace, and Continental Bar all had their regulars. Band leader Dick Stabile, who later became music director for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, introduced a newcomer to Pittsburgh. On New Year’s Eve of 1938, a struggling young band leader named Lawrence Welk was booked to play the Italian Terrace. Pittsburghers immedi­ately loved his light-hearted dance music and his “bubbly and effervescent style:’ Phil Davis, who was a continuity manager and script writer for WCAE radio, which broadcast from the hotel, compared Welk’s style to the sparkle of champagne. Welk, knowing a catchy phrase when he heard one, quickly renamed his band The Champagne Music Makers. (Actually, almost any name would have been better than some of his earlier trial monikers, especially the Hotsy Totsy Boys or the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra.) Welk revived an old ballad he had written, stepped up the tempo and announced a contest to rename it. The prize, an eve­ning of dining and dancing in the Italian Terrace Room, was won by a Pittsburgher who suggested Bubbles in the Wine. The woman claimed her prize and Welk his signature song. The famous soap bubbles were not added until ten years later, originally the result of a movie premiere, the creativity of a hotel engineer, and a little serendipity.

In 1947, Cecil B. DeMille’s movie, Unconquered, which dealt with Fort Pitt and the Indians, made its world pre­miere in Pittsburgh and a gala celebration was planned at the William Penn Hotel. Knowing DeMille’s penchant for using bathtub scenes in his movies, the hotel’s chef created a life­-sized ice cawing of a bathtub for the banquet’s focal point. Sensing that the chef’s creation needed “something” more, the banquet staff asked engineer Ludwig Dernoshek to put his creativity to work. Dernoshek first thought of bubbles. “I got a fan and attached an old mo­tor from a clock,” he remem­bered. “The clock motor, covered with a sardine can, was used to rotate the gadgets, which dipped and spun around in a pie pan filled with kid’s soap bubble liquid.” The following year Lawrence Welk returned to the hotel to dis­cover bubbles as the perfect complement to his Cham­pagne Music – and as his trademark. The William Penn Hotel still owns the original bubble machine and, in fact, occasionally uses it whenever nostalgia and a little illusion are called for.

By the late 1930s, the hotel had emerged not only as a convention facility, but as the center for almost all business and social activity in Pittsburgh. Legend claims that more deals were made in the Continental Bar than in any corporate office in the city.

The hotel was haven to both permanent and transient guests and could accommo­date either equally well. The Bulletin Index in 1937 took note of the hotel’s ambience. “Sur­rounded by all the luxuries that human ingenuity and expenditure can produce, so insulate and so provided for the guest that he might inhabit the hotel’s corridors for years without venturing out into the harsh realities of sunlight. At the William Penn he may sleep in one of 1,600 rooms, eat at five public dining rooms, drink at one of seven bars, dance in one of the hotel’s two cabarets, buy cigars, books, alarm clocks, suits, stocks and bonds, get his hair cut, his shoes shined, if he is ill sum­mon to his door almost any commodity under the sun.”

The war years again brought prosperity to Pitts­burgh. With the Penn Central Railroad’s station only a few blocks away, the hotel was constantly filled with service­men. Popular songs, such as Goodbye Dear I’ll Be Back in a Year and I’ll Be Seeing You, served as the background for joyous homecomings and tearful farewells – as well as for many wartime romances which blossomed at the Wil­liam Penn.

The hotel continued to change with the times. The Statler Hotel chain, which had taken over management of the William Penn in 1940, intro­duced modern innovations, including sterilized and wrapped drinking glasses and free radio in every room. (Dur­ing the thirties, guests could rent coin operated radios at twenty-five cents per half hour of play.) Service was impera­tive, and Statler’s management took it seriously, although a fascinating file survives, still bulging with a sheaf of letters from one guest who could not quite adjust to the increasingly faster paced time. The letters speak for themselves – and for the William Penn Hotel.

Dear Sir:
I arrived at your hotel about noon on Wednesday. There was a strange clerk back of the desk whom I had never seen before and who did not know me. I have been going to your hotel for twenty-two years and although, as Manager, you have the privilege of having anyone you see fit back of the desk, it seems to me that with the number of officials in your organi­zation there should be someone continually in the lobby, who knows the public, especially when there is a new clerk back of the desk. I have called this to your attention two or three times dur­ing the year about having some­one to welcome people, – someone who knows them and knows what they want. Anyone who has been going to your hotel for twenty-two years does not like to give his life history even; time he arrives.

Another simply reads, “Gentlemen: I will arrive at your Hotel at noon on Thurs­day and want a room on arrival, – the kind of room I want. You know what that is.” They didn’t, but they quickly learned.

The guest dispatched many letters in the same vein, and Statler management answered every one, addressing each complaint with utmost seri­ousness. Other guests were much too busy (or much too popular) to be taken for granted. Celebrities Lucille Ball, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mickey Rooney traveled to Pittsburgh to gather support for government war bonds, and were welcomed by their fans at the William Penn.

The golden years of the William Penn Hotel glimmered for all associated with it. Silverblatt’s Flower Shop in the lower lobby sold as many as one hundred boutonnieres a day, along with almost as many gardenias, which were proffered by the striking “gar­denia girls” in the Terrace Room. Sugar Silverblatt, who with her husband, Tom, owned the flower shop, was one of the hotel’s most popular and colorful hotel luminaries. A buxom, blond woman de­scribed as having the “face and disposition of an angel,” Silverblatt’s name was synony­mous with the social events in the city. She was a professional singer, and many of the guest celebrities routinely visited her. In fact, Sugar Silverblatt hosted Sophie Tucker, Pearl Bailey, Tyrone Power, and Sammy Kaye, but one of the highlights of her career was the week she “headlined” in the Terrace Room, bringing down the house nightly with her trademark song, Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey?

Another of the Terrace Room’s well-received enter­tainers was the famous torch singer Hildegarde, who would refuse to sing unless the wait­ers stopped serving and the stenographers in the lobby ceased typing. She bathed in buttermilk, which the bellmen delivered to her room daily. She insisted on having her own reserved elevator, but no one minded; she was one of Pittsburgh’s most popular performers.

Because of the labor short­age during World War II, many more women flocked to the hotel for jobs that were previ­ously held only by men. The hotel had always employed women as maids and wait­resses, but during the war years they were becoming visible in “the front of the house” as well. Dee Shaw, the first female restaurant man­ager, thought it was the best job she had ever had, even though the former Washingto­nian found the air so dirty that the women wore satin slips to work so the dirt would not cling. Manager of the Coffee Shop and Lower Lobby restau­rants, she was responsible for ninety employees who served more than one thousand lunches per day. “At that time,” Shaw recounted, “the hotel had sixteen hundred rooms and advertised one employee for every room. Due to wartime shortages, supplies were low. On my third day at work, all the salt and pepper shakers were missing from my restaurants – taken by the banquet department. I called and firmly told them to return them immediately or I would come and get them. I felt I had to establish my authority im­mediately. They would never have taken them if I were a man.”

Statler policies were strict and formal. Women could not wear make-up or jewelry other than wedding rings. All em­ployees had to line up for inspection before each shift began, while management looked for scuffed shoes, wrin­kled uniforms or unkempt hair. At every change of shift, employees marched in forma­tion to their respective sta­tions. Frank Perry, who had been a bellman at the hotel for forty-nine years, remembers those days wistfully. “Service was an art then. Travel was leisurely and pleasurable – a luxury. People would stop and talk. Now it seems everyone is in a hurry.” Nevertheless, Perry said, guests’ basic needs remain the same. “The three things people want are cleanli­ness, courtesy, and good food. People want to feel at home.” And people have always felt at home at the William Penn Hotel.

Frank Perry remembers vividly Jane Russell’s visit in conjunction with the opening of her movie, Pink Lady – the French Suite was actually painted pink in her honor. He recalls that Harry S. Truman would occasionally sneak out through a side door for a soli­tary evening walk because “he didn’t like to make a fuss.” Perry also remembers the time Richard M. Nixon asked him to deliver a bottle of Scotch to his room – and invited him to stay for a drink.

On June 29, 1943, a mo­mentous luncheon meeting that would change the city’s future was held at the William Penn. Pittsburgh, known world-wide as “The Smoky City,” finally decided that it had suffered enough of the sooty skies and gritty streets. The luncheon marked the birth of the Allegheny Confer­ence on Community Develop­ment and was the basis for the first Pittsburgh Renaissance that would follow soon after the war. The city became the first in the country to adopt strict smoke control laws. As the smoke cleared, Pittsburghers – amazed and awed – saw their city for, per­haps, the first time in years.

The William Penn Hotel was part of this Renaissance. When Eugene Eppley regained control of the hotel, the city was changing rapidly. Slums were being cleared at the Point – the confluence of the Allegheny, the Monongehela, and the Ohio rivers – to make way for the gleaming Gateway Center office complex. Plans were undertaken to construct the domed Civic Arena just five blocks from the William Penn. Beside the hotel, the old Nixon Theatre was razed to make way for the Alcoa Build­ing, the world’s first com­pletely aluminum skyscraper. Across the street, Mellon Square Park became the hotel’s new front yard. Progress and convenience were the order of the day, and Eppley knew that his guests, who traveled first class, would no longer be content with small, outmoded rooms. Guest quarters were redecorated and enlarged, and each was equipped with an air conditioning unit. In keeping with the decade’s increasingly casual style, the stately Palm Court Lobby became the breezy Garden Cafe, complete with tile floors and globed street lamps. Excited guests crammed the Men’s Bar to watch the installation of the hotel’s first television set. Five years later, Sheraton Hotels took over management of the hotel, which thrived with the rest of Pittsburgh. The new owners again renovated, but changed the name (for the first time in the hotel’s history) to the Penn-Sheraton.

Whatever its name, the hotel was still the meeting place for Pittsburghers. It was the second home of Mayor David L. Lawrence, who painstakingly supervised the city’s Renaissance, and met with Richard K. Mellon, who was on a first name basis with the bellmen. The Penn­Sheraton was said to have the second largest liquor account in Pennsylvania, and the Con­tinental Bar alone sold more than five hundred Old Fash­ioneds a day. The Urban Room’s orchestra played for dancing until six o’clock each morning! Hollywood stars continued to regularly stay at the hotel. Employees remem­ber Jackie Gleason driving up to the hotel in an open con­vertible, surrounded by the June Taylor dancers. The hotel literally rolled out the red carpet for him, and his friend­liness impressed everyone. Upon arriving in his room, he called Room Service for ice cream. When an employee asked him how many scoops, Gleason cheerfully roared, “Scoops? Send the whole bucket!” While other attend­ants remember Lawrence Welk practicing on his accordion in the Palm Court, bellman BiJI Richey recalls Liberace arriving at the hotel with his brother George. At two o’clock in the morning, after Liberace’s show had ended, his sister-in-law called Richey with a request for a cake to celebrate the entertainer’s birthday. Room Service had dosed and it was doubtful there was a cake to be had anywhere at that hour. Nonetheless, Bill Richey found a bakery able to deliver a cake within an hour.

Presidents made the hotel their first stop in Pittsburgh. When President Eisenhower visited, the hotel sent its re­nowned chocolate cookies and a bouquet of flowers to Mamie, who had not accompanied him. John F. Kennedy visited while he was campaigning, and Pittsburghers crowded the lobby, even standing on tables to catch just a glimpse of the handsome and articulate presi­dential contender.

In 1958, the hotel hosted the city’s bicentennial, a white tie soiree attended by the first families of Pittsburgh society, as well as by, among other dignitaries, Henry Cabot Lodge and ambassadors from France, Great Britain, and Canada. It seemed a fitting way to celebrate the growth of the city and the hotel.

The turbulence of the six- ties did not spare the Penn­Sheraton. By 1964, hotel occupancy in the city declined dramatically. The country still mourned a beloved president and Camelot had vanished as well. The hotel seemed a relic of another era. Perhaps – just perhaps – it was time for her to step aside and make way for another, more useful edifice. In December 1964, Sheraton announced plans to sell the hotel to John Galbreath, real estate developer and owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Rumors claimed that Galbreath would demolish the building to erect Pittsburgh’s tallest skyscraper, the U.S. Steel Company’s office tower. Pittsburghers reacted with resigned acceptance.

To everyone’s surprise, rescue came from an unex­pected quarter a few weeks later. The Hotel and Restau­rant Employees Union an­nounced that the new owners would be forced to assume responsibility for a three year contract that had been signed just the previous October. Speculation ran wild, and many conjectured that the new owners would have to pay from four to seven million dollars in lost wages. Galbreath swiftly retreated, and the union re-negotiated a new contract with Sheraton, allowing management to re­duce the staff to make the hotel as cost-effective and competitive as possible. Pitts­burgh applauded. The Penn­Sheraton Hotel was saved – for the time being.

Just three years later the hotel was again in trouble. Because of the earlier threats, the union insisted on a new clause in its contract, a guaran­tee that the structure would not be sold except as a hotel. Sheraton refused, and the union called for a crippling strike that would last for eight months. The future looked grim for the pride of Pitts­burgh. The hotel was closed to all but the one hundred or so permanent guests and staffed with a skeleton crew of management employees, while union employees picketed outside the building. Sheraton decided it had had enough and pulled out of the city. A group of Pittsburgh investors, believing the hotel was very important to the city, pur­chased it, settled the contract, and re-christened it the Wil­liam Penn Hotel. Happily returning to work, a room attendant echoed the feelings of all. “It’s like meeting a dear old friend you had given up for dead,” she said.

Pittsburgh once again had her grand lady. But she was growing old and tired. In the Age of Aquarius – those tu­multuous days of flower chil­dren, of bell-bottom trousers, and of the women’s movement – grande dames no longer inspired awe nor com­manded attention. Numerous face lifts and changes in man­agement during the years only resulted in an odd, eclectic appearance that had neither style nor grandeur. Modern hotels, glittering with glass and chrome, were sharing in Pittsburgh’s hotel market, a trade that an energy crisis and unchecked inflation had brought to a slow crawl. The William Penn was giving up its crown as the undisputed cen­ter of Pittsburgh.

Alcoa purchased the hotel in 1971, and announced an extensive renovation program seven years later. While this effort was truly ambitious­ – three floors of the hotel would be totally renovated and mar­keted as Crown Service execu­tive rooms to the expense account guest – it was not enough. Management noted that only the Crown Service floors generated reservations; keeping only three floors booked was not enough to run an 850-room hotel. In 1984, Alcoa, in partnership with Westin Hotels and Resorts, inaugurated a thirty million dollar restoration of the hotel. Entire guest floors were com­pletely gutted and rebuilt. Rooms were resized, plumbing and electrical systems were replaced, and new windows were installed. The Grand Ballroom was refurbished with new carpeting and draperies, and the exquisite Palm Court Lobby again became the meet­ing place for a new generation of Pittsburghers. The somber colors of the Palm Court have been replaced with elegant greys, pale yellows, and light cream colors. The heavy furni­ture has been sold, and in its place are delicate French Re­gency style chairs and plump, inviting love seats where Pitts­burghers meet for afternoon tea (that not infrequently passes subtly – and swiftly­ – into the cocktail hour). Pitts­burghers supervised the latest renovations with a proprietary air as they had during pre­vious projects. Although scaf­folding littered much of the lobby as artisans applied real gold leaf to the twenty-five foot high ceilings, Pittsburgh­ers gaily sipped tea or swilled martinis and Manhattans amidst the commotion.

The big bands of an earlier era may have grown silent, but music still wafts through the Palm Court Lobby during tea time and well into the night. When conductor Andre Previn left the Pittsburgh Symphony, the hotel took great pains to acquire his piano, a fitting symbol to grace the Palm Court. The William Penn Hotel is still home to the stars. Pitts­burgh is becoming well known as a film center, and the hotel plays host to even more celeb­rities than ever before! In re­cent years, Kathleen Turner. has been spotted dining in the Terrace Room and Jimmy Ste­wart has been seen at tea. Surprised guests have also chanced upon Hollywood idols Timothy Hutton and Christopher Reeve in an eleva­tor.

First time hotel guests may notice two elderly women who ritually meet at the hotel for dinner every month. They are so tiny and frail that the young doorman stands behind them unobtrusively, but with arms outstretched to catch them lest they fall as they make their way up the steps to the lobby. With their netted hats and white gloves, they seem as fragile as Dresden porcelain miniatures. No one knows who they are, but all eyes are upon them. At the dining room, the maitre d’ greets them effusively, and escorts them (also with outstretched arms) to a table where they dine leisurely, lingering as if they are, indeed, mistresses of all they survey. During their last visit, one of the pair re­marked quite loudly (for both are quite deaf), “The William Penn -ah, it’s still a place that cares.”

And so a hotel is a place of many things to many people. For seventy-five years – some good, some not so good – the William Penn Hotel has kept its special place in the hearts of generations of Pittsburghers. It is a place of memories and legends and dreams, a touch­stone to remind the weary traveler that graciousness and elegance still exist in a some­times rude, often inhospitable world. It is proof, too, that courtesy and style are never out of fashion. The William Penn Hotel is much more than a place to eat or sleep. It is a promise to the future that, in spite of how the world may change, some things – perhaps those most taken for granted­ – will endure forever.


For Further Reading

Baldwin, Leland D. Pittsburgh: The Story of A City. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1937.

Dalstrom, Harl A. Eugene Ep­pley, His Life and Legacy. Nebraska: Johnson Publishing Company, 1969.

Harvey, George. Henry Clay Frick, The Man. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928.

Killikelly, Sarah H. The History of Pittsburgh, Its Rise and Progress. Pittsburgh: B. C. and Gordon Montgomery Company, 1906.

Lorant, Stefan. Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1964.

Swetnam, George. Where else but Pittsburgh! Pittsburgh: Davis and Warde, Inc., 1958.

Van Trump, James. Life and Architecture in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, 1983.


The editor wishes to thank Mari­anne Lee and the staff of The Westin William Penn Hotel for their generosity in researching and lending illustrations for this article.


Marianne Lee, a resident of West Mifflin, has been associated with the hotel industry for the past ten years. She has served seven years as sales manager for The Westin William Penn Hotel. In addition to writing this article, she coordinated activities and events com­memorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the hotel. The author wishes to gratefully ac­knowledge the employees of The Westin William Penn Hotel, both past and present, who inspired this story.