While recently attending a conference in Pittsburgh I received a very pleasant surprise. The site of the conference was the Omni William Penn Hotel, a historic downtown Pittsburgh hotel that first opened in 1916. The majority of the hotel is typical nineteen-teens decor, with an ornate lobby and public spaces.
Through the teens and the 1920’s the William Penn became the première hotel in Pittsburgh. As the 1920’s reached its climax the hotel expanded onto Grant Street. Included in the expansion plans an ultra modern night club would open on the 17th floor. Legendary designer, Joseph Urban would be responsible for bringing New York sophistication to Pittsburgh. Urban had already designed sets for the Ziegfeld Follies, Ziegfeld Shows such as Show Boat and Rio Rita and the Metropolitan Opera.
Urban worked on the Urban Room of the William Penn Hotel concurrently with the redesign of New York’s Central Park Casino. The Urban Room opened on May 9, 1929. The following day the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported:
Dinner, Dance End New Hotel Annex Opening
More than 1,500 are present at the William Penn Fete
Last night, for the first time, the Urban room, connecting the seventeenth floor addition to the ballroom, was thrown open. The interior was designed by Joseph Urban, New York, famous for his stage settings, and is done in a motif of gold and black.
The decoration is carried out in the colors of Pittsburgh from top to bottom, with the chandelier particularly unusual. An immense garden is at one end of the room and , when completed, six setting of flowers, greens and rocks will convert the space into the appearance of an outdoor bower.
The Pittsburgh Press had this to say of the Urban Room in its June 23, 1929 edition:
Up Above The World So High
Like a gem in the social sky, shines the newly opened Urban Room of the William Penn Hotel. There amid the gold and ebony splendor of Joseph Urban’s latest and most artistic work, in the topmost corner of the new addition we are going to lunch, dine and dance this summer. It’s delightful how cool it is there and how little competition there is between the soft strains of the orchestra and the great outside. And it will be smarter than sun tan this summer to be seen here with your friends, particularly your out-of-town friends, who demand the best in town. Now our hunger for a cosmopolitan touch to our city can be satisfied by this lovely place presented at just the right time to fill Pittsburgh’s needs.
The walls of the Urban Room are alternating painted panels that continue the ceiling mural down to the floor and black Carrara glass (Vitrolite). The effect is striking if a bit subdued.
The delight that Pittsburgh felt about this new restaurant can be seen in this article from the Pittsburgh Press on June 30, 1929:
With so much of Joseph Urban’s work demolished you can imagine my surprise when I entered the room encountering this high Art Deco space. It is amazing to me that the Urban Room has remained basically unchanged for nearly ninety years. The flowers, greens and rocks mentioned in an article above are gone, but everything else is intact. I initially missed the Historic Landmark wall plaque outside of the Urban Room, so I was unprepared for what I saw. After a few minutes of looking around it seemed to me to be a Joseph Urban design, especially the ceiling mural. I was told about the plaque later and I made sure to get a photo of it.
As noted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article of 05/10/1929 the “particularly unusual chandelier” is still the centerpiece of the room. A large circular, bronze piece with “sun rays” shooting off it in all directions, hanging from the ceiling by cascading bronze tubes. It is very striking.
Should you happen to be visiting Pittsburgh and you like Art Deco, try to see the Urban Room, you won’t regret it.
Anthony & Chris (The Freakin’, Tiquen’ Guys)
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