How the Ace Hotel Fell Hard for Pittsburgh

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The Elks Lodge, on Pittsburgh’s North Side, might seem like a strange place to contemplate this city’s future. Everything about it has remained essentially unchanged for decades. Everything except the crowd on Banjo Night. Sure, you still get the adorable old folks in orthopedic shoes swaying to ’40s standards, but, increasingly, there are gaggles of millennials who have turned the Pittsburgh Banjo Club’s weekly rehearsals into an ironic evening out. Sometimes, when the plucking of the assembled geezers gets fierce and enough $7 pitchers of Yuengling get drunk, the whole place turns into one raucous, multigenerational hootenanny.

I went to Banjo Night at the suggestion of Matthew Ciccone, a local developer who helped bring the new Ace Hotel to Pittsburgh. While these days it might seem like every hipster enclave automatically gets an Ace at a certain point in its artisanal evolution, this hotel didn’t just happen at the stroke of a venture capitalist’s pen. The $23 million project took seven years to hatch, and involved a ragtag consortium of stakeholders who patched together financing from neighborhood organizations, grants, and tax credits. “Constantly, up until the day it closed, there was a fear that the deal would collapse,” Ciccone told me.

A Pittsburgh native who has a graduate degree in public policy from Carnegie Mellon, Ciccone can easily slip into a disquisition about the rise and fall (and tentative revival) of urban life in Pittsburgh. East Liberty, where the Ace is located, was once the heart of the city’s East End, a second downtown where many of the industrialists who built this country, including Henry Clay Frick, kept homes. These Gilded Age plutocrats underwrote big, prestigious architectural works for their neighborhood—like the Gothic Revival–style Cathedral of Hope (financed by a Mellon) and, right across the street, the YMCA, which, after decades of disuse, is now home to the Ace.

The hotel is laid-back, even by Ace standards, with few of the preening, laptop-bound scenesters you sometimes see at the Ace in London or New York. Over the entrance is a stained-glass window made by the local artist Glenn Greene. On a recent snowy weeknight, I hung out by a communal table, sipping a totally decent white from the Languedoc that was priced like pail wine ($9 for a quarter-liter). Fela Kuti played on the stereo while an out-of-work waiter cold-called area restaurants to see if any were hiring.

The hotel preserved many elements from the old YMCA, including some of the original wainscoting and terrazzo floors. The old three-story gym, with its running track and restored mural, has been converted into a mixed-use event space: On some nights there will be setups for games of shuffleboard and cornhole, other times the space will play host to a roller disco party or a televised football game. (Ace, hardly the jock among hotel brands, had to get a little sporty for its Pittsburgh iteration.)

It is a measure of the brand’s cachet that its arrival here is being seen as a turning point, a moment when Pittsburgh completed its transition from Rust Belt legacy town to upcycled capital of cool. Plenty of people will take issue with that characterization, but those people are not magazine editors. Since the Ace project was announced, the national lifestyle press has been on a Steel City shopping spree, commissioning article after article after article about its emergence as a food and culture and even tech hub.

In fact, Pittsburgh is not just a happening place to visit—increasingly, people, especially New Yorkers, are toying with the idea of moving here. Last spring, Monocle published a “prospectus” about the high bohemian real estate boom in the blue-collar neighborhood of Lawrenceville, which was immediately followed by a long panegyric from Brooklyn Based: “Should We All Just Move to Pittsburgh?” The piece was riddled with alluring anecdotes, like the story of one transplanted couple who bought a three-bedroom fixer-upper with original stained-glass windows for—“wait for it”—$65,000.

That article in turn gave rise to a spirited conversation on Reddit, with some parsing Pittsburgh’s low cost of living, others weighing the relative merits of Allegheny and Kings counties, and still others suggesting that anyone who makes such a spurious comparison between two vastly different places must be a total douchebag. But the comparisons didn’t stop. If Pittsburgh wasn’t the next Brooklyn, perhaps it was the next Portland? Or the next Austin?

Ciccone has always treasured the authentic Pittsburgh on view at the Elks Lodge, but he also understood that the city—whose population today is half of what it was at Pittsburgh’s mid-century peak—needed very specific things to thrive again. “I remember making a list of why people graduate from college and move to Portland, Oregon, sight unseen,” said Ciccone. “It’s not because of some city-financed ad campaign. It’s because of some perceived interest in the place, and that is driven by interesting firms being there, interesting places to hang out and drink, interesting art and people. You can’t manufacture that. It has to just happen.”

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