Around Town: Family-run Priory makes more room(s) for North Side visitors
The Grand Hall was packed last Thursday night, which happens on the North Side if you send out invitations with those four little words that mean so much: "complimentary food and drinks."
The Graf family, who turned an abandoned Benedictine monks' monastery into a 25-room hotel 25 years ago (when most people declared them nuts), was at it again.
Now well into their second generation of risk-takers, the Grafs were celebrating a new, multimillion-dollar, 17-room addition to The Priory Hotel.
The hotel belongs to John and Suzanne Graf now, but his parents, Ed and Mary Ann, the founders, were there, too. Ed and the other men of the Schweitzer Mannerchor Helvetia Singers of Allegheny City arrived in traditional Swiss dairy blouses and caps, with an alpenhorn, a curved wooden horn as long as a python, in tow to augment their singing and yodeling.
You don't get that at Applebee's.
The Grand Hall -- with columns topped with gold leaf and restored Austrian stained glass -- was once St. Mary's Church but had stayed empty for 14 years until Ed and Mary Ann reopened it as a banquet hall in 1995.
As my wife and I were slipping through the snow to the car after last week's gala, it hit me that there were now 600 hotel rooms within walking distance: the three hotels around the stadiums, a couple of bed-and-breakfasts up the hill from them, and the Priory, on Pressley Street in East Allegheny.
"Tourism" and "North Side" were not terms I would have joined 20 years ago, but the neighborhood has been in the vanguard of a regional trend. Greater Pittsburgh has gone from 15,755 to 23,318 hotel rooms since 1990, according to VisitPittsburgh.
Anybody predicting that in 1986, when the Priory opened in the shadow of Parkway North construction then under way, would have been given 50 lashes with a wet pierogi. But John Graf says this $2.7 million expansion is justified despite increased competition from hotels that have opened on both sides of the Allegheny River since construction of the stadiums and the expanded David L. Lawrence Convention Center a decade ago.
When the Priory opened, it was with an eye toward Allegheny General Hospital, Heinz and the big IBM presence then in Allegheny Center. But cultural travelers, sports fans and wedding parties have been keeping the hotel busy since.
"The economy dinged us a little bit," Mr. Graf said, "but our feeling was the demand was there."
So after fire in the wee hours of a cold January morning two years ago destroyed a three-story apartment building next door, the Grafs bought the condemned property. Then they hired Bob Baumbach, the architect who lives and works in the East Allegheny/Deutschtown neighborhood and has done so much to transform it in recent years.
Looking at the new three-story wing from the sidewalk, one might take it for a stand-alone mansion, fitting seamlessly with the residential street. Inside, the hotel is all of a piece, with stylish rooms accented with art from Shaw Galleries. A fitness center and The Monks' Bar, a cozy little sippery overlooking the street, will open shortly.
The Priory also has an elevator for the first time. Mr. Graf rides that with an appreciation honed by a quarter century of climbing up and down stairs, often with luggage.
"There's some quaintness to that but it gets old, I think."
Now, large wedding parties that couldn't all find rooms in the Priory have a better shot. Apart from the wedding and business clients, the Steelers, Pirates, Andy Warhol Museum, Mattress Factory museum and Hazlett Theater, in that order, are the chief generators of patrons.
It's not your grandfather's North Side.
First Published February 1, 2011 12:00 am