Lost oil painting hung in Bradford hotel

Hotel served as first Pitt-Bradford residence hall

O'Connor Taxi in front of Emery Hotel in 1934
The Emery Taxi Co. at the Emery Hotel in 1934

The University of Pittsburgh at Bradford is restoring a lost 19th century masterwork painting that hung in the Emery Hotel. In 1964, the hotel was reincarnated as one of the university’s first residence halls. Once “The Emery” became a dormitory, the painting was stashed for safe keeping and forgotten for 55 years. This second installment of a five-part series about the restoration focuses on the painting’s second home in Bradford, the Emery Hotel.

by Sally Ryan Costik

The Emery Hotel – now known as Emery Towers -- was considered to be “the most beautiful and opulently furnished hotel in the east, worthy of the richest and busiest town in Pennsylvania oil fields.” 

The Emery was built in 1929 by Grace Emery in memory of her father, Lewis Emery, one of Bradford’s pioneer oil producers and a dominant figure in the growth of the city and the area’s oil industry.

After Lewis Emery’s death in 1924, his daughter Grace was determined to honor his life and legacy with a spectacular hotel. It was said that she “erected this unusual monument because she thought it fitted her father’s characteristics and active temperament.” It would be the first hotel to be built in the city in nearly 30 years, since the Holley Hotel was built in 1901. Every detail was scrutinized, and money was no object. Eventually, the total cost of the hotel would top one million dollars.

Even its future location at the head of Main Street, with a commanding view of the business district, was determined. It was considered to be the most desirable location in the city, but an old hotel, the St. James, had been located on this site since 1878. This was no deterrent to Grace, who had the financial ability to persuade the owner to consider her offer. By December 1927, the St. James was sold.

A rendering of the new hotel by architect F. I Merrick of Pittsburgh was printed in The Bradford Era in March 1928, and by April of that year, the St. James was gone. Construction began that June. Seven months later, it was finished. The grand opening was held Feb. 22, 1929, and more than 300 guests were invited.

The new hotel had seven stories and 105 guest rooms. From a telephone in every guest room to a mahogany baby grand piano in the lobby, Grace Emery’s vision was one of home and friendliness but wrapped in luxury. 

A huge neon “Emery” sign on the roof lit up the night. A dark blue flag with the Emery family crest and the words “Fidelis et Suavis” or “Faithful and Courteous” flew from the balcony, and all 61 hotel employees, recently hired, were expected to honor that creed.

There was a barber shop with three barbers, an orchestrope phonograph on the seventh floor that held 26 records and could pipe music to every room and also be used as a paging system, a telephone switchboard, a cigar and newsstand, a laundry, and two elevators. An all-electric kitchen could serve 500 meals a day. Each room had its own toilet and washstand (unheard of in other Bradford hotels!) and either a bathtub or a shower.

The bellhops wore navy blue double-breasted jackets, with the name “Emery” embroidered in gold on the sleeve. The doorman wore a long, blue overcoat with wide lapels and a military style hat with “E” written out in gold braid.

There was a coffee house, patterned after an old early American tavern, and a main dining room. A private dining room, named the Venetian Room, had an additional entrance from Chautauqua Place and featured a ceiling “finished with clouded effects embellished with blocks of various colors to harmonize with the large painting.” The large painting referred to was, of course, the “Promenade in Venice” painting, which had been moved from Grace from Emery’s mansion and now would be the focal point of the room. 

There were also five stores on the first floor, all of which faced the public square and three offices for professional men. 

Opening night saw the hotel filled with flowers from well-wishers from all over the state. Everyone was eager to congratulate Grace Emery and her associates on the erection of such a wonderful hotel. There was dancing, an orchestra, a quartet, and a soprano who entertained the guests. At some point during the grand banquet, soldiers in full military regalia from Company K, Pennsylvania State Guard, marched single file into the dining room, circled the tables, then returned to the lobby and, snapping to attention, gave three rousing cheers “echoes of which vibrated the walls of the magnificent structure.” Later, the rugs were rolled up and a night of dancing until the morning hours commenced.

Just a year later, an eighth floor – the penthouse – was added and became Grace Emery’s personal apartment.

Over the next 35 years, the Emery saw weddings, banquets, birthday parties, meetings, dinners, and thousands of guests. It had its share of drama, comedy and unusual events as well. A murder/suicide in June 1931, just two years after the opening of the hotel, added a note of tragedy to the hotel’s narrative.

In May 1944, 55-year-old Johnny J. Woods, a ‘human fly’ climbed blindfolded up the front of the Emery Hotel to raise money for the American Legion during wartime. Once he reached the top, he did a handstand and then balanced himself on two chairs, reading The New York Times.

In June of 1949, the Circus of the Saints and Sinners, a fun-loving organization to say the least, held a national convention in Bradford, and as a publicity stunt, stuffed a real elephant into the lobby of the hotel.

By the 1960s, however, modern motels were replacing traditional hotels. The Emery Hotel was sold to the University of Pittsburgh in May 1964. Interior renovations began immediately with anticipated completion in time for the fall semester. The new name would be “Emery Hall.”

As the renovations moved at break-neck speed, all traces of “hotel living” were sold, including the furniture, beds, lamps, dressers and nightstands, and were replaced with new student furniture and desks. The lobby desk, glass display cases and large hotel safe were also sold. Everything was painted, plumbing repaired or replaced, and new electrical wiring installed.

The main portion of the former lobby became the Student Union, complete with comfortable chairs, a television, piano and tables for playing bridge or hearts. Gone was the Gold Room, which became a student bookstore. The Coffee Shoppe became the William Pitt Room, which was open seven days a week to area residents and visiting parents of collegians. The “Promenade in Venice” painting in the Venetian Room vanished, exiled to storage on Hilton Street for the next five decades.

Three meals a day were served to the students. A strict dress code for dinner required the male students to wear a jacket, shirt, tie, socks and shoes; female students needed to wear a dress, skirt, blouse, or sweater or a suit.

The second, third, fourth and fifth floors became the men’s residence. The sixth floor was for women. The ratio of men to women was four to one, with 182 male students and 33 female students. A house mother also had an apartment on the girls’ floor, no doubt to prevent inappropriate student mingling.

The penthouse had offices for 13 members of the faculty plus a Faculty Club.

Just six years later, however, with student housing on Pitt-Bradford’s campus becoming a reality and more students wishing to live on campus, discussion began on the feasibility of converting Emery Hall into housing for the elderly.

Pitt-Bradford sold the building in 1974 to Quadrant, owner of the Bradford Holiday Inn, for $140,000, but it would take 13 more years, several more owners, years of vacancy, feasibility studies, grants, and community meetings before Emery Towers became a reality in 1984.

Today, although it has undergone transformation during the past 91 years, from hotel to college dormitory, to senior citizen housing unit, the Emery Hotel remains at the head of Main Street and the name Emery still stands as an icon of success and civic patriotism.

Ida Tarbell, an investigative reporter of the early 20th century famed for her muckraking book ‘The History of Standard Oil” and a good friend of Emery, wrote “Lewis Emery fought his way to a substantial position in the oil world. … He was a rich man … but never let money stifle his personality. He continued to wear his clothes naturally… he never lost his pioneer spirit.” The hotel was a tribute to his panoptic view of life.