For some time, “The Digs” staff has been partaking in a Pittsburgh tradition: Watching construction work at the city’s most visible hotel. We’re thrilled that renovations at the Wyndham Grand are finally complete.
More than half a century ago, the hotel was known as the Hilton. And as it slowly rose over the Point, one steel beam at a time, thousands of Pittsburghers stood on sidewalks and craned their necks to watch the progress. One was a Pittsburgh Press reporter named Gilbert Love.
This was in the late 1950s — an exciting time in the city. Love and every other Pittsburgher had fresh memories of the Point as a place of crumbling warehouses, dilapidated brick dwellings, saloons and narrow cobblestone streets.
Then it changed — in dramatic fashion. The Point was cleared, the old buildings demolished. Silver towers named Gateway Center 1, 2 and 3 rose skyward, looking spiffy and modern. Surrounding them were trees and shrubs. Greenery, on the Point! It was barely believable.
Further up Liberty Avenue stood Four Gateway Center, 22 stories of green glass — a mirror, so the new and emerging city could preen itself.
The Hilton would be the gem of the Point. “We intend to build a beautiful structure worthy of its beautiful site,” said the hotel’s director. When was the last time anyone had used the word “beautiful” and Pittsburgh in the same sentence?
But there it was, 24-stories of anodized gold, an exclamation point on the Golden Triangle. Workers wrapped it in a quarter mile of royal blue ribbon — “the world’s largest ribbon and bow,” proclaimed The Pittsburgh Press.
Tanned and dapper Conrad Hilton showed up to cut the five-foot wide strip of cloth. Trailing behind him were a bunch of his Hollywood friends. After opening ceremonies, the sexes parted in typical ’50s style: Women filed inside to attend a fashion show while men sat down to a luncheon.
The city shivered with anticipation of the next day’s dinner and dance, a $75 per person affair open to 1,000 Pittsburghers and 200 special guests of Hilton. “The doors of the largest ballroom in the eastern part of the nation will be thrown open to reveal what promises to be one of the most spectacular scenes of elegance and conviviality ever witnessed here,” gushed the Press.
It was a smashing event. A few days later, Love looked up at Mount Washington and imagined what the new city would look like in the years to come. He could visualize “the crest of the hill lined with restaurants with glass walls overlooking the triangle, and apartment houses with balconies or decks to take advantage of the view. Below them, the hillside would be a hanging garden of blooming plants.”
He imagined pleasure boats on the river, a fountain sending a geyser of water into the sky, walkways along the river.
Visitors, he wrote, “will wonder why this place was ever called ‘The Smoky City.’”