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William Penn Centennial Pays Tribute To Storied Past

Pittsburgh’s “Grande Dame,” the Omni William Penn Hotel, celebrates its 100th birthday this year. The downtown hotel’s rich history will be remembered through both public and VIP events this week. Bob Page, director of sales and marketing for the William Penn, previewed the events from the building’s lobby.

The hotel began as a project of industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Inspired by the many extravagant hotels of Europe, Frick sought to outdo them all.

“He spared no expense in putting this hotel together,” Page said. “He was a very competitive man and he wanted his hotel to be one of the best hotels in the world and one of the finest hotels in the world.”

The William Penn was quite advanced for its time. Not only did every room have a phone and electricity, but they also were among the first hotels to have private bathrooms.

Opening on March 9, 1916, a room at the hotel cost merely $2.50, with the most expensive room costing $50. But the hotel offered more than just a place to stay. Inside the building, customers could access a candle maker, butchery, and even hair salons. According to Page, It was said that anyone staying at the hotel never had to leave.

During the Prohibition Era, the hotel was home to a speakeasy, with a built-in escape hatch in case of police raids. While the room was boarded up for many years, it was eventually reopened to the public in 2012.

“I think we did a lot of learning about speakeasies while we were opening that,” Page said. “Pittsburgh probably had more speakeasies than any other city in the country.”

Even during the Great Depression, when many other businesses were failing, the William Penn endured. While Page says the hotel did see some financial hard times, it was always saved by an investor.

From presidential speeches by Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan to film performances by Denzel Washington and Jake Gyllenhaal, the downtown hotel has played a number of different roles to accommodate its notable celebrities.  It even helped being the career of musician and television personality Lawrence Welk, whose “bubble machine” is still on display.

For the actual centennial celebration Wednesday, Page says they’ve cleared the lobby for what “Pittsbugh’s largest birthday cake.”  While guests enjoy the dessert, candles are available for purchase and the proceeds go toward Variety Children’s, which originated in the hotel.  

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