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New owner is restoring the 80-year-old George Washington Hotel – Builder falls in love with Washington historic treasure

Pittsburgh Post GazetteSunday, July 08, 2007

By Gretchen McKay,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As a builder who specializes in high-end period restorations, Kyrk Pyros is something of a sucker for historic structures.

When it comes to deciding which long-forgotten buildings are worth bringing back from the dead, though, the Thornburg resident and president of KP Builders in Robinson is usually pretty good at following the No. 1 rule of commercial real estate: Keep your emotions out of it.

Fall in love with a building, Mr. Pyros cautions, and you might end up basing a decision to buy on how the property looks and makes you feel instead of whether it makes sense from a financial or functional standpoint. And that, he says, “is a bad thing.”

So what was he thinking, buying the 200-room George Washington Hotel in downtown Washington? Abandoned by a series of owners who followed what Mr. Pyros calls the “deferred maintenance plan,” the 80-year-old landmark was pretty much uninhabitable by the time he spied it for sale four years ago in the classified section of Preservation, a magazine put out by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And it was in Washington County, of all places, not in Washington, D.C., as he’d assumed when he first read the ad.

“I couldn’t believe it, to be honest with you,” Mr. Pyros, 40, recalls with a laugh. “It was like, you mean the Washington 30 miles south of Pittsburgh?”

Yet a historic treasure is still a historic treasure, no matter what its location, and Mr. Pyros, who also owns Allegheny Crane Rental in Richland, was well acquainted with the building’s past. Designed by renowned architect William Lee Stoddart, the George Washington Hotel for much of its history counted famous actors, politicians, athletes and even rock stars among its guests.

John F. Kennedy gave a speech to supporters from the marble steps of its Oval Room when he was campaigning for the presidency, and baseball great Lou Gehrig and car maker Henry Ford also checked in. So did the Beatles when they finally made it to Pittsburgh in September 1964 for a long-awaited show at the Civic Arena.

But who could blame them? The hotel was modeled after the famous Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., where President and Mrs. Lincoln lived before they moved into the White House in 1861. The 10-story building boasted a two-story, balconied grand ballroom with hardwood floors and crystal chandeliers and a grand entrance on West Cherry Avenue that delivered guests into an exquisite marbled lobby. It also featured an equally elegant dining room that told the story of the Whiskey Rebellion in the early 1790s via a series of murals by Washington artist Malcolm Parcell (1896-1987).

So, even though the hotel — which at the time was being used for Section 8 housing — was close to being condemned, Mr. Pyros followed his heart instead of his head and put in a bid. Many of the small towns he’d stayed in over the years had wonderful boutique hotels; just look at the Inn at Little Washington in the Shenandoah Valley or the Buhl Mansion in Sharon, Mercer County. With Washington on the upswing, he reasoned, perhaps the time was ripe for one there, too.

“I thought it was great,” he said, recalling how he sped to the site within 30 minutes of making the call on a Friday night. “I could see the potential.”

Four years into a projected five- to seven-year project, Mr. Pyros is well on his way to accomplishing that goal. With all of its 72 apartments renovated and the facility’s banquet and restaurant businesses flourishing, he’s about to embark on the final stage of this labor of love: construction of the first 16 of 32 hotel rooms on the third and fourth floors. They should be open by the end of September, says Mr. Pyros, with the final 16 being completed by Christmas.

At the same time, a work crew will renovate the spacious lobby so it’s the image of what existed when the hotel opened in 1923.

In addition to refurbishing all the intricate plaster work on the main and mezzanine levels and restoring the inlaid mosaic marble floor, they’ll add the same kind of giant wood registration desk that distinguishes the Willard. Cushy furniture and a giant Oriental rug are also planned.

“We pay attention to detail,” says Mr. Pyros. “We want it crisp and perfect. Our motto is to be the best.”

To help establish the hotel’s boutique character, each room will be named after a famous person who stayed there, and have its own unique theme. For example, there will be Kennedy and Ford rooms, along with one that pays homage to the Beatles. All will be priced from about $135 on weekdays and from $195 on weekends.

Mr. Pyros concedes that in a city where many consider a half-hour drive from home a day’s trip — and the Point is just 30 minutes from downtown Washington — it may be difficult to attract those first guests. But he’s confident once they see it as a destination, that will change.

Already, he notes, the hotel is booking banquets and weddings in its two ballrooms for guests from as far away as Greensburg, Westmoreland County, and Weirton, W.Va. In addition, one of his first projects after purchasing the hotel — turning a boarded-up storeroom on the ground level into the casual Cherry Blossom Bistro — is pulling in regular crowds.

So is Bradford’s, an old hair salon-turned neighborhood bar that serves upscale wines to the white-collar crowd. It’s named after Whiskey Rebellion leader David Bradford, whose 1788 house just a few blocks away on South Main Street is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We’re at the crossroad of the U.S., on the National Road,” he says. “Interstates “79, 70 and [Route] 19 all intersect here. So I believe it will be successful.”

Patrons will certainly have someplace nice to while away the evening, in the renovated Pioneer Grill. Previous owners boarded up those famous Parcell paintings in this old-fashioned, formal dining room. But under Mr. Pyros’ ownership, the murals, which are valued at $3.8 million, once again set the stage for diners who stop by to enjoy chef Renee Gordon’s upscale menu.

Since February, Ms. Gordon has also offered “white glove” dinners one weekend a month in the renovated Oval Room. Priced between $60 and $80 per couple, the five-course meals include everything from appetizers and dessert to such gourmet entrees as Mediterranean Halibut in Parchment. This month’s dinner, offered on July 13-14, will feature all Italian dishes.

“Every weekend is busier and busier,” says manager Ron DeVerse, who also is the administrator of the Cherry Tree Assisted Living facility on the sixth floor.

Taking the old hotel where he wants it to go, Mr. Pyros readily concedes, hasn’t been easy. One small setback, for example, was an electrical fire Oct. 15 that destroyed two entire floors. Because the building was built out of cast-in-place concrete, it didn’t do any structural damage.

And it hasn’t been cheap; when the project is finished, he expects to have sunk about $8 million into it.

“When you have a vision and believe in something, you have to go all the way,” says Mr. Pyros. “Once I start something, I don’t quit.”

(Gretchen McKay can be reached at or 412-761-4670. )

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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