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For Its Pittsburgh Outpost, Ace Hotel Taps A Booming Rust-Belt Design Scene

To transform a former YMCA building in Pittsburgh, Atelier Ace sought out designers and craftspeople from Steel City.

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With each of its locations, the Ace Hotel Group plays a balancing act between channeling the regional culture but remaining faithful to its brand of retro-inspired hospitality. Its latest outpost, in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood, leverages the talent of local craftspeople—from the furniture in each room to the stained glass adorning the historic edifice. It's the perfect approach to a city like Pittsburgh, which has kept its local traditions and communities strong despite being heralded as a top city for young people and "the next Portland."

"In a sense, Pittsburgh has always been rooted in a culture of creation—makers of bricks, of steel, of furniture and textiles; we believe that Ace Hotel Pittsburgh's spaces should reflect that history," Kelly Sawdon, partner and chief brand officer of Atelier Ace, says of the homegrown design strategy. "The city's historical identity is deep, and we've done our best to honor it throughout our building, down to smallest detail."

The 63-room hotel is located in a stately turn-of-the-century building that once housed the YMCA. Its neighborhood, East Liberty, has slowly undergone change in the last decade and is home to a new crop of businesses ranging from bars and restaurants to hotels. Google's Steel City office is in the area, too.

Sawdon and her team retained as many of the building's original details as they could, like the ornate moldings and decorative carvings above the entrance (on the tympanum specifically, for all you archi-nerds). They also collaborated with the artisans at Glenn Greene Stained Glass—a company operating in Pittsburgh for 35 years—to repurpose some of the original glass for a decorative installation in the lobby. In terms of decorative touches, photographs by the celebrated Pittsburgher Teenie Harris line the walls around the central stairwell and were selected with the help of the Carnegie Museum of Art, which manages his archive.

Atelier Ace enlisted local design studio Bones and All—a self-proclaimed "Rust Belt workshop"—to build luggage racks for the rooms and tables for the hotel's restaurant and communal spaces. Upholstery from Woolrich—a 180-year-old company founded in nearby Plum Run, Pennsylvania—covers many of the vintage chairs sourced for the rooms as well as the benches throughout the lobby. The designers also looked to independent businesses in Portland, where the Ace opened its second hotel in 2007, like the Portland Garment Factory for quilts and wayfinding signage and Schoolhouse Electric for lighting.

The hotel is certainly stylish, but it has a very different sensibility than flashy Ace outposts in Palm Springs, London, and Panama, which befits Pittsburgh's Rust Belt roots. And compared to the New York City location, it looks positively grown up—gone are the cartoonish murals in the rooms, and the furniture looks like it's sourced more from antiques dealers than tag sales.

"We’re still new to East Liberty, but it has been incredibly gratifying just to experience all of the local energy coming in and out of our doors—to play a small part in the exquisite dance of this city," Sawdon says. "Ultimately, our hope in Pittsburgh is to foster a comfortable kind of commons for all of it—a place where locals feel welcome to work and relax, and where guests interact organically with the local community."

All Photos: Rob Larson

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