The History of the Hotel
The McCook Estate
The late 1890’s and early 1900’s were in many ways Pittsburgh’s golden age, measured by prosperity and economic might, if not by a clean environment. Pittsburgh was a financial and industrial powerhouse as well as a center of river and rail transportation. In 1900, Pittsburgh produced more than half of the crucible steel in the nation, and by 1910, it was the eighth most populous city in the country.
It was also a time where giants of the business world traversed Shadyside’s Fifth Avenue – “Millionaire’s Row” – on a daily basis. Names such as Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, Westinghouse and Heinz were among the leading citizens of the day.
At home with this august set was Willis F. McCook, a prosperous attorney and legal counsel to steel and coke magnate Henry Clay Frick. Although his fame derives from whom he represented, McCook was highly accomplished in his own right. A groundbreaker in modern day corporate law, McCook studied law at Columbia University following his graduation from Yale in 1873. He was also a pioneering athlete, serving as captain of Yale’s first football team and playing in the first intercollegiate football game in the nation. Later in life, he served as president and director of the Pittsburgh Steel Company, and was a partner in the law firm McCook & Jarrett. He died in 1923 at the age of 72.
In the early 1900’s, McCook commissioned the construction of a 20,000 square foot mansion for himself, his wife Mary, and his ten children on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood
In time, McCook’s daughter Bessie became engaged, and while construction of the McCook manse was still underway, the lawyer commenced building a more modest (but still spacious at 8,000 square feet) home adjacent to his own. The smaller mansion (now the Mansions on Fifth Hotel’s Amberson House) was completed first, and the main house (now called the Fifth Avenue House), was finished in 1906.
The two mansions were designed in the Elizabethan Revivalist and Tudor styles by the architectural firm Carpenter & Crocker, also of Pittsburgh’s East End. Many of the firm’s other projects, which range from Florida to Washington state, exist today, including the iconic Trinity Cathedral Parish House in downtown Pittsburgh. The contractor on the McCook estate was Thomas Reilly, who also built the massive and magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral just down Fifth Avenue from the estate. Reilly also worked with Carpenter & Crocker on the Parish House at Trinity Cathedral.
McCook and his designers and builders spared no expense, using some of the finest craftsmen of the era, including master ironworker Cyril Colnik (fixtures and decorative items), Rudy Brothers Art Glass (leaded and stained glass installations), and Rookwood Ceramic Tile (for the decorative tile around the fireplaces in the houses). The stunning carved wood in the Grand Hall of the Fifth Avenue House was produced by Woolaeger Manufacturing of Milwaukee. The total cost of the project was $300,000 in 1906.
The Bonavita Family Era
The remaining McCooks lived in the main mansion through the 1930’s. Due to the cost of upkeep and the economic pressures of the Great Depression, the family was unable to keep current with their property taxes and the house was seized for sheriff’s sale by the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Department. The mansion was purchased at sheriff’s sale in 1949 by Emil Bonavita, Sr. and his wife Margaret for $28,000. The Bonavitas moved into the manse with their two children, Emil, Jr. and Charles.
As a way to pay for upkeep for the massive building, the Bonavitas began to rent rooms on the upper floors to students at nearby Carnegie Mellon University. Students were thoroughly screened, and many of those attracted to the historic property were studying at CMU’s prominent arts and theater schools. Margaret, who acted as a house mother to the many students who resided at the home over the years, resided in the McCook mansion until her (much mourned) death in 2003. According to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette architecture writer Patricia Lowry, tenants included Albert Brooks, Andy Warhol, Shirley Jones and George Peppard.
In 1966, Bessie McCook Reed, for whom the Amberson House was built in 1905, passed away. She lived in the home from time of her marriage until her passing. Three years later, Emil Bonavita, Jr. and his wife Marie acquired the Amberson House, and moved in to raise their family of three children - EJ, Jimmy and Michael. Emil and Marie also assisted in the boarding operations at the larger Fifth Avenue House.
In 2004, the Fifth Avenue House, the main mansion, sustained a horrific fire. The fire caused extensive damage to the upper floors. The building became uninhabitable, and its tenure as a home for students had come to an end. In the meantime, Emil and Marie looked to sell the damaged mansion to a purchaser who would restore it.
Pittsburgh preservationists, husband and wife Mary Del Brady and Richard Pearson, acquired both houses of the former McCook estate from Emil and Marie Bonavita for $1.5 million. Their idea was to redevelop the property into a boutique hotel and event center. Restoration and repair work, which was extensive given the fire damage, commenced in January 2010. The Fifth Avenue House, the primary mansion, was completed in early 2011 and opened to the public in March of that year with 13 guest rooms and suites, the grand hall event space, a library, the Oak Room pub, and two private dining rooms. The adjacent Amberson House, featuring 9 guest rooms and suites, opened in November 2012. Total cost of the project was in excess of $8,000,000.
The properties were recognized as an historic landmark by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2012.
A New Era: Acquisition by the Priory Hospitality Group
In late September 2016, boutique hotel owner/ operator Priory Hospitality Group acquired the operating assets of the Mansions on Fifth Hotel and assumed operations of the Shadyside property. Owned and operated by the Graf family since 1986, the Priory Hospitality Group’s properties include the award winning Priory Hotel (a Tripadvisor Hall of Fame member), Grand Hall at the Priory event facility (Best Wedding Venue – City Paper 2016; Best of the Knot 2006-2016; Pittsburgh Magazine Best Restaurant 2012 & 13), and Priory Fine Pastries commercial and retail bakery (Runner Up – Pittsburgh Magazine Best Bakery 2012 & 13).
The Priory Hospitality Group is working hard on developing changes to the Mansions on Fifth Hotel which will improve this already fantastic asset, and which will surprise and delight guests, clients and customers.