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Renovated Fulton Building opening as Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel

Gilded dowager ready for guests

Tuesday, March 13, 2001

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The $45 million makeover of the Fulton Building has transformed a dusty Downtown gem into a highly polished, multifaceted, beautifully realized jewel of a hotel.

The Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel, on the Downtown side of the Allegheny, offers great views of the new baseball stadium, just across the Roberto Clemente Bridge. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

With its "soft opening" this Thursday, the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel will begin to welcome guests, giving management time to refine the training of its 160-member staff before the official ribbon-cutting April 25.

The 286-room hotel, developed by Denver-based Sage Hospitality Resources, will be operated as a Marriott franchise and will cater to leisure and business travelers looking for the ambiance of a boutique hotel and the amenities of a full-service one. The introductory room rate, good through summer, is $99 a night, or $189 for a Club Level room with its own concierge and lounge.

As the first hotel in the heart of the cultural district -- and one with outstanding views of PNC Park just across the Roberto Clemente Bridge -- it's poised to take advantage of tourists who fancy both Bach and baseball.

When they step inside the brass-and-glass doors at 107 Sixth St., they'll be transported to another world, where potted palms and sumptuous furnishings decorate the three-story, white marble lobby, a spectacular rotunda illuminated once again by its magnificent, translucent dome.

Blacked out in World War II and further darkened by 300 pounds of coal dust, the copper-covered, backlit dome has been brought back to its full, radiant glory, with hammered glass panels set against a zinc, fish-scale-patterned armature, giving the appearance of leaded glass.

The dome, 30 feet in diameter, is encircled by gilt-painted rings of neoclassical moldings, with marble mosaics in the ceiling's four corners -- details visitors can best appreciate on the colonnaded balcony overlooking the lobby and its grand staircase.

Despite its past uses [including an incarnation as the nightclub Heaven], the lobby came through almost entirely intact.

They don't make interiors like this anymore, except perhaps as movie sets. One suspects it won't be long before location scouts for one film or another are knocking on the hotel's door, thrilled to find an authentic survivor from the waning days of the Gilded Age.

Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Phipps built it in 1905-06, naming it for inventor, engineer and artist Robert Fulton, whose company had built a steamboat, The New Orleans, in Pittsburgh in 1811.

During the renovation, workers discovered the lobby's original marble and brass floor medallion in more than a dozen pieces on an upper floor. Honoring Fulton and depicting, perhaps, The New Orleans, it was partly restored, partly replicated by Columbia Marble Co. and now is displayed on a mirrored wall in the lobby.

Phipps hired New York architect Grosvenor Atterbury to design the Fulton Building and four others along the Allegheny Wharf. Two of them -- the Fulton and its companion Bessemer Building -- flanked Sixth Street, forming a gateway to Pittsburgh from the city of Allegheny.

Both used elements of the Renaissance Revival style that set them apart from the traditional, neoclassical skyscrapers of the day.

Atterbury gave both buildings red-clay-tiled, hipped roofs and heavy brackets under the deeply overhanging eaves, but only the Fulton was U-shaped, with its light well bridged over along the river side to create a monumental Roman arch. Of Phipps' five buildings, only the Fulton and the Gayety Theater -- now the Byham -- remain.

J.G. Johnson Architects of Denver was the architect for the renovation, with 30 Pittsburgh companies engaged in interior demolition (every floor above the lobby was gutted), construction and restoration.

The interior was designed by Wilson and Associates of Dallas, who chose floral and geometric patterns in a muted primary-color palette of burgundy, deep blue and gold, with cherry- and satinwood-veneered furniture inspired by historical styles.

Sage also commissioned Pittsburgh artists to create works that celebrate the city's historic bridges and buildings.

In their rooms, guests will find large prints of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette artist Dan Marsula's finely detailed drawings of the Allegheny County Courthouse, Dollar Bank building on Fourth Avenue and the Carnegie Music Hall entrance. Prints of Dee Paras' watercolor of silhouetted mill and skyline brighten the bathrooms, where porcelain sinks are set in dark Italian granite countertops above open, ornate, bronze-finished metal bases.

The hotel's old-world ambiance masks 21st-century technology: All of its 286 guest rooms (including 14 suites with living/dining areas) have two phone lines with high-speed Internet access; connection to the Internet via a wireless keyboard and 27-inch television; clock radio/CD players; individual climate controls; and cordless phones.

And all of the guest rooms have smashing views, either of Downtown buildings, the North Shore or into the light well, which has its own charm in the undulating sequence of copper-clad bay windows, restored to a rich green patina.

The best view -- certainly the most panoramic -- belongs to the penthouse Presidential Suite, where guests will pony up $2,200 a night for luxurious accommodations that include a granite-topped bar, dining room, living room, Jacuzzi and double shower. It likely will see more performers than presidents.

With The Bridge bar and Opus restaurant, both just off the lobby, the hotel also will contribute to the city's night life. The former showcases photographer Jack Wolf's images of Pittsburgh bridges on the maize-colored, beeswax-finished plaster walls and in a montage of light boxes above the bar.

In the 140-seat Opus restaurant, serving Mediterranean cuisine under chef Ralph Cippolo, a music-themed mural by John Manders adds a warm, bright note above dark paneling of African sapelle wood. The bar and restaurant will open on Thursday, too.

The lobby's grand staircase leads to the second floor, with six meeting rooms, and the third floor has three more -- with a total of 14,000 square feet.

Some of the meeting rooms are named for arts luminaries with Western Pennsylvania roots: Mary Cassatt, Martha Graham, Henry Mancini, Jimmy Stewart and August Wilson.

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