The Hotel Schenley, which opened in 1898, was the keystone of entrepreneur Franklin Nicola’s dream of Oakland as a center for culture, art and education. Among the hotel’s first stockholders were Andrew W. Mellon, Henry Frick, Andrew Carnegie, George Westinghouse, and H.J. Heinz—all of whom shared Nicola’s vision for Oakland. The beaux-arts structure was erected on land once owned by fellow stockholder Mary Croghan Schenley.
Full of marble, chandeliers and Louis XV architecture, the Schenley quickly became home to the great and the near-great of Pittsburgh. Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Dwight Eisenhower all signed the hotel register.
Singer-actress Lillian Russell lived on the fourth floor and married Pittsburgh publisher Alexander Moore in the French Room. Dramatic tenor Enrico Caruso and his entourage occupied seven suites during their stay. Sarah Bernhardt, Nelson Eddy, Jeannette MacDonald, and Henry Fonda all stayed at the Schenley. Italian tragedian Eleanora Duse succumbed to pneumonia in Suite 524.
As the 20th century began, the Schenley proved to be more than just a place to stay in Pittsburgh; it was where the young ladies of society “came out,” where couples married, and where one could dine on the “haute cuisine” of the day.
The Schenley was a place where Pittsburgh power brokers met, and many of the discussions leading to the birth of the U.S. Steel Corporation were held at the hotel. But 1909 was a year destined to change the Hotel Schenley forever. That summer, Forbes Field opened just down the street and the University of Pittsburgh moved from its North Side location to Oakland. From then on, the “Waldorf of Pittsburgh” gradually became the preferred hotel of National League baseball players in town to play the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now, added to the register were names such as Babe Ruth, Casey Stengle, Ty Cobb, and Rogers Hornsby. Deals struck over dinner at the Schenley now included baseball trades.For the next 40-plus years, the Schenley continued to operate, albeit on a less grand scale. The Renaissance brought modern hotels to downtown Pittsburgh and, ironically, Frank Nicola’s dream of an Oakland civic center turned out to be a nightmare for the Schenley. The turn-of-the-century marvel had been built in rural Pittsburgh. The 1950s Schenley was surrounded by hospitals, educational facilities, concert halls and private clubs with no parking to serve the hotel’s mobile guests.
In 1956, the Schenley Park Hotel was sold to the University of Pittsburgh to serve, among other things, as its student union. While $1 million was spent to renovate the facility, it remained a hotel-turned-union for the next 25 years.
As the student population of Pitt’s campus blossomed to more than 30,000, it became clear that the grand structure needed an overhaul.
In 1980, the University announced a $13.9 million renovation and restoration for the Union, made possible by bonds sold through the Allegheny County Higher Education Building Authority. During the 18-month project, seven upper floors were gutted, making way for bright, modern offices for students and the Student Affairs administration. The turn-of-the-century character of the main floor has been retained through careful restoration, and the rarely used basement has become a functional lower level, thanks to the new Forbes Avenue Entrance.