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Don't judge Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh's addition by its cover

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 8:21 p.m.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
The newly renovated lobby at the Wyndham Grand Hotel downtown Moday August 4, 2014.

In art, as in life, good intentions don't always produce the best results.

If you've ever looked at that awkward swooping addition to the front of the Wyndham Grand hotel in Gateway Center and wondered why it is there, you should know that previous owners had the best intentions of updating the hotel with large and flexible new meeting spaces, a swimming pool and exercise facilities.

With two subsquent bankruptcies and two changes in the hotel's majority ownership, it took seven years, from start to finish, to build the addition. As of today, there are two important things to know.

First, this prominently situated and once very popular hotel — it was known for almost half a century as the Pittsburgh Hilton — is solvent again and thriving. The “Wyndham Grand” brand alone makes it attractive, and event bookings, room occupancy, revenues and staffing have increased for two years in a row. The hotel is profitable and looking forward to a strong 2015.

The second is that, with the addition finally done, the construction walls in the lobby are down, and the hotel and its renovations can be appreciated in full.

Designed by architect Stephen Berry of Youngstown, the renovations succeed very well on the inside — making an already flexible and attractive interior better on all counts. The redone lobby is restful and inviting, and a new, more dramatic stairway leads to the ballroom level. On that level, new, large meeting rooms are in place, with lots of huge windows and a swooping ceiling that matches the outside. The windows overlook Point State Park.

But that copper-colored swoop of an addition on the outside, unfortunately, might as well be a building all by itself, given how poorly it works on the front of the hotel. It is way too big a gesture for the building behind it. If you are on the street directly in front of it, or under the canopy it creates, the sleek sweep of the addition's facade can be quite impressive.

But as a graft onto an existing building, it is, well, a grafting that is never going to take.

Its proportions diminish and overwhelm the rigorous repetitions of windows and mullions that characterize the mid-century-modern original. Moreover, its copper-colored skin simply doesn't fit well with the gold-color aluminum skin of the main block of the hotel behind it.

To architect Berry, the “swoop” was an extension — to the height of the fourth floor — of the concave front of the old King's Garden, a sometime restaurant, sometime meeting room, that projected over the entrance of the hotel from the second floor. You can't tell it from the outside, but the highest part of the swoop — at the corner with Liberty Avenue — contains that swimming pool the past owners wanted.

The original Hilton was designed in 1959 by the late William Tabler, a New York modernist who did some 400 hotels in his career. Many from the 1950s and '60s were sheathed in then-stylish curtain walls of metal and glass.

In Pittsburgh, though, he did something that, to architecture enthusiasts, was amazing and amusing. He appears to have copied and used for this hotel several basic shapes from a famous student dormitory known as the Swiss Pavillion, built in the early 1930s in Paris by the great “form-giving” architect Le Corbusier.

But where Corbusier built some of his most innovative buildings of rough-finished concrete, Tabler enclosed the Pittsburgh hotel in a curtain wall of gold-colored anodized aluminum and glass. And where Corbusier elevated the Swiss Pavilion on “piloti” — which are bare concrete piers — Tabler surfaced his “suggestions” of piloti with a warm-color honed travertine.

This made his building far more comfortable-feeling and inviting than any of Corbusier's similar work.

There was precedent for putting a Corbusier-styled building here, however wittily updated. The three original Gateway Center office buildings, built in the early '50s, were inspired by a Corbusier scheme for rebuilding Paris — cruciform towers surrounded by parkland and served by super-highways.

Architecture, though, isn't just what happens on the outside. The virtue of the addition is that it updates and enhances Tabler's already efficient layout of the hotel inside.

The ballroom has always been the largest hotel ballroom in the city, and the new addition — where 500 guests can be seated for lunch or dinner — is directly across from it. Altogether, the hotel now has about 35 separate meeting rooms, all easy to find and all within a few moments walk of the front door.

The Wyndham is a convention planner's dream, and that's no small thing when you consider that convention business is a key part of the Downtown's economics.

So, we Pittsburghers will just have to learn to live with the less-than-appealing outside, recognizing that the inside is more than worthy of the city.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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