Obituary: Mary Ann Graf / Her vision created The Priory on the North Side

June 7, 1938 - Jan. 8, 2014

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Most people saw chipped plaster. A roof falling in. Pigeons in the rafters.

Mary Ann Graf saw something different: gold leaf on the ceiling, soaring columns and ornate stained glass.

It was a vision that led her and her husband to bet nearly a million dollars in the mid-1980s on what would become The Priory Hotel, an instrumental piece in the revival of the Deutschtown neighborhood on the North Side.

"She had it in her head, 'Boom, this is what this place is going to look like, and it's going to be spectacular,' " said her son, John Graf, who now owns The Priory with his wife. "It was a leap of faith to invest back then -- a lot of their friends thought they were nuts."

Ms. Graf died Wednesday of complications from lung disease. She was 75.

Her husband, Edward Graf, first encountered the property housing the dilapidated St. Mary's Church in 1984 while scouting locations for office space as an executive with Ketchum Communications.

The property, which housed a church and Benedictine monastery in the 1800s, was then owned by PennDOT, which had acquired it to build Interstate 279. A change in the route for the highway meant that the landmark buildings were for sale, and once Mr. Graf determined that they wouldn't be suitable for Ketchum, he showed them to his wife, who had an active interest in historic preservation.

While Mr. Graf was on a business trip, Ms. Graf bid a little more than $100,000 for the properties. And when she picked him up at the airport, she announced, "Well, we own a church and a priory. What are we going to do with them?"

The couple decided to create a family-owned boutique hotel, of the style they'd seen on European travels. Ms. Graf, in her late 40s at the time, enrolled in hospitality classes at Robert Morris College, working as an intern at the Sewickley Country Inn, learning everything from bookkeeping to housekeeping.

When The Priory Hotel opened with 25 rooms in 1986, leaders of the downtrodden neighborhood were eager to help.

"We wanted them to have 100 percent occupancy on their first night," said Barbara Burns, a former city councilwoman who owns the Sweet Time gift shop on East Ohio Street. "Those of us who live, like, a block away -- we booked the hotel so that it was totally filled. Most of us just took our toothbrush and went home."

Thanks to positive publicity and a growing reputation, soon the hotel was being booked by more than just its immediate neighbors.

Ms. Graf was the engineer of many of the hotel's best-known features: She designed armoires to compensate for closets built for monks and insisted on sausages and cheese at breakfast to provide a European feel.

She also was the smiling face of the hotel -- a fixture at the reception desk in late afternoon, sometimes with a Manhattan in hand.

In 1999, after securing land for parking from the state Department of Transportation, the Grafs were able to open Pittsburgh's Grand Hall at The Priory, which remains a sought-after space for weddings and other functions.

The Grafs also opened the Priory Fine Pastries in the East Ohio Street business district and renovated the building that houses it. They also bought and renovated a corner building that they currently lease to a Rita's Italian Ice franchise.

"It went from just being a founder of this signature business to being part and parcel of the North Side," said Mark Fatla, executive director of the North Side Leadership Conference. "They ultimately moved here and it became not just the place of their business, but the place of their lives."

Ms. Graf was raised in Ingram and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, where she met her husband.

The couple moved to Ben Avon, where she was the first kindergarten teacher in the Avonworth School District -- a position she resigned when she had children, as was customary at the time.

She became an active volunteer in the community, helping to organize the Music and Arts in ACORD festival and to found the Ben Avon Area Historical Association.

In 1999, she and her husband renovated and moved into the historic Fraser House in Deutschtown, where a few years later they passed ownership of The Priory to their son.

Mrs. Graf doted on her eight grandchildren -- two of whom, Max and Will Graf, were featured in a series in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that examined what life is like for the boys, both born with dwarfism. After Will was born to John Graf and his wife, Suzanne, the couple adopted Max from South Korea.

In addition to her husband, son and grandchildren, Mrs. Graf is survived by two other sons, Stephen of Ben Avon and Timothy of Alexandria, Va.

The family will hold a visitation from 2 to 4 and 6 to 9 p.m. today at McDonald-Linn Funeral Home in Avalon. A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Saturday in Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Emsworth.

Memorial donations may be sent to the Ben Avon Area Historical Society or Brother's Brother Foundation.

Anya Sostek: or 412-263-1308.

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