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The Society of Tavern Seekers talks up history in storied bars

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Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
John Engle, center, takes a photo of the Urban Room at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown, during the Society of Tavern Seekers meeting. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
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Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
The ceiling of the Urban Room at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown on Thursday evening at a meeting of the Society of Tavern Seekers. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
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Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Arthur Ziegler Jr., president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, stands in the Urban Room at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown, at a meeting of the Society of Tavern Seekers. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
PTRTAVERNS01122312
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
John Engle, center, takes a photo of the Urban Room at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown, during the Society of Tavern Seekers meeting. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
PTRTAVERNS03122312
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
The ceiling of the Urban Room at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown on Thursday evening at a meeting of the Society of Tavern Seekers. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
PTRTAVERNS02122312
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Arthur Ziegler Jr., president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, stands in the Urban Room at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown, at a meeting of the Society of Tavern Seekers. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review

Gather historic preservation buffs at Pittsburgh landmarks to talk about their history and it could be, well, sort of like watching paint dry.

Did we mention there would be drinking?

The Society of Tavern Seekers, a program of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, puts historic preservation enthusiasts in some of the city’s most interesting and historic watering holes to discover the taverns and learn about ways to preserve other Pittsburgh spaces.

The program, which has built up steam over the past three years, is run by David Farkas, director of Main Street Programs at Landmarks, and Karamagi Rujumba, project manager.

“I think Pittsburghers are very interested in the city’s history,” Farkas said. “This is a pretty cool program, fun to run.”

The gatherings attract a diverse mix of about 60 to 70 people.

“Longtime supporters, young professionals, even students,” Rujumba said. “The idea is to engage all those demographics.”

The society’s meeting places have included: the Original Oyster House, which opened in 1870; the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, founded in 1908; Teutonia Mannerchor, a private club founded in 1854; Allegheny HYP Club, located in buildings erected in 1894 as workers’ row housing; the Gandy Dancer Saloon, which is housed in a former train station built in 1900; and the Penn Brewery, founded in 1848.

Its final meeting of the year drew almost 100 people to the Urban Room at the Omni William Penn Hotel.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, the hotel was designed by the renowned architectural firm of Janssen & Abbot in 1914. The firm designed the Pittsburgh Athletic Association (1911) and Mellon Institute (1931-1937).

And yes, there was some drinking. Followed by a tour of the hotel with commentary by Albert Tannler, historical collections director at Landmarks.

Getting a chance to see buildings that typically don’t draw the general public attracts Patrick Kent, 42, of Shadyside.

“I come to these pretty frequently,” he said. “I like the venues … The Pittsburgh Athletic Association is one of those places you wouldn’t go to normally.”

Sandy Aitken of Edgewood is enthralled by the architecture of some of Pittsburgh’s “jewels.”

The Urban Room is one of Pittsburgh’s most notable Art Deco interiors. Located on the 17th floor — just off the Grand Ballroom — it was designed by Viennese-American architect and designer Joseph Urban (1872-1933) and is the sole survivor of many supper rooms and restaurants he created between 1928 and 1932 in Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, New York, and Pittsburgh.

The hotel was the third Downtown building built by Henry Clay Frick. He financed the Frick Building and the Union Arcade. It was Frick’s first venture into hotel-building. Construction began in the summer of 1914 and took nearly two years to complete.

When it opened March 10, 1916, the William Penn Hotel was 22 stories tall and featured 1,000 rooms, each with a private bath and telephone. Standard guest rooms went for $2.50; one night in the seven-room State Suite was $50.

The hotel featured a ballroom and a bakery. Its staff included about 900 workers.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or [email protected].

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