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My question is about the Roosevelt Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh. Was it named after FDR? 

Question submitted by: Loralee Babjack, Cuddy, Pa.

 

 

It seems unlikely. The hotel opened in 1927 -- five years before the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the ascension of the Democratic Party in local politics. And for years after Roosevelt's New Deal, many businesses in Pittsburgh and elsewhere would just as soon have named the structure after Lenin.

 

 

I can't be entirely certain of the origins of the hotel's name, since newspaper stories about the hotel's opening don't explicitly mention the reasons for it. But it seems logical to assume that Teddy Roosevelt was the hotel's namesake. He was a widely celebrated figure in the 1920s, known for those two definitive inventions of the 20th century: the teddy bear and the Panama Canal. Later newspaper accounts assert that the hotel was named for Theodore Roosevelt, and mention a prominent portrait of him hanging in the hotel's ballroom.

 

Located at the corner of Sixth Street and Penn Avenue, the Roosevelt promised luxury accommodations for travelers. According to a 1927 preview in the Pittsburgh Press, the lobby was decorated in an English Tudor style, "with a large fireplace at one end," walls of paneled oak and terrazzo marble floors. Patrons also had the use of a separate meeting space, provided on the theory that "quite frequently patrons of a hotel desire to meet people on business and usually have to take them to their rooms." This was true for many salespeople looking for companionship, no doubt -- though whether they'd want to transact such business in a public meeting place is a little harder to judge.

 

Sadly, the late 1920s proved to be a difficult time to open a hotel. What brought Franklin Roosevelt into office, the Great Depression, also drove the Roosevelt Hotel out of business. According to a 1936 account in the Bulletin-Index, Pittsburgh's business magazine, the hotel went bankrupt three months after the stock market crashed, a fate suffered by 85 percent of the country's hotels.

 

The hotel recovered, but in 1947 was purchased by the Albert Pick hotel chain, once the third largest in the country, according to media reports. It was renamed the "Pick-Roosevelt," which you'd think would be an auspicious name, given that voters had done precisely that four times in the previous 15 years.

 

Even so, the Roosevelt struggled over the years. In 1972, the hotel closed for lack of business, and a few years later was reconfigured to serve Pittsburgh's biggest growth industry: housing old people. With help from the federal government, the building was converted into nearly 200 rent-subsidized apartments for the elderly. The furnishings of the Pick-Roosevelt were, well, picked over. The lamps, chairs, beds and other furnishings of some 600 hotel rooms were auctioned in May 1974. So were a pair of brass-and-mother-of-pearl murals and a photo of Theodore Roosevelt himself -- largely because "its wide wooden frame is worth good money these days," a P-G story of the time noted.

 

So why did the Roosevelt go out of business? It faced competition from the construction of the Downtown Hilton, a key component of the city's first Renaissance, and more importantly from a profusion of suburban motels in places like Monroeville and Green Tree. In 1972, the company closed the hotel, with one Pick executive telling the Post-Gazette,  "We just don't think an older hotel has a chance of competing in a downtown area. There's just not enough sex to it."

 

Not enough sex to a Downtown hotel? Located a block away from Liberty? In the 1970s? Seems like someone didn't understand how to play to the local market's strengths. But of course, the Roosevelt's owners weren't the only ones struggling to figure out the market: In the 1970s, some tourism officials blamed the hotel's closing on the lack of a Downtown convention center. Today, we supposedly have the opposite problem: a large convention center, but not enough hotels.

 

Maybe we should have just converted the Roosevelt back. After all, judging from the debate over Social Security these days, when it comes to other aspects of the Roosevelt legacy, kicking poor old people out onto the streets seems all the rage.

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