Distrikt Hotel Pittsburgh, Curio Collection by Hilton

The idea for a “People’s Institute,” as it was called in a 1916 newspaper article, was introduced as early as 1913. The initial proposal was of only a shelter and hotel for destitute men, after it was established that the city of Pittsburgh had a significant need for such a service. The building was also intended to consolidate all of the activities of the Salvation Army in Pittsburgh under one roof from their existing five locations, which would not only make the operation more efficient, but would also reduce expenses, even down to small things such as telephone calls. Similar to the People’s Institute building in Boston, the new building would provide physical, moral, and spiritual comfort for the needy and, “... be an established center...known as the Army headquarters to every person in the city and would be a sort of lighthouse to all who need its help.” Despite the initial interest in the project, with “the breaking of the World War and the consequent plunging of this country into the gray, the plan was abandoned for the time and whole efforts of the Salvation Army and those connected with the proposed building were used in aiding to bring the war to a successful and hasty conclusion.”

In 1920, there was renewed interest in the project and fundraising began in September of that year, with a goal of $400,000 for the new building. By then, the purpose of the building had shifted to include “a modern community center... hotel, day nursery, social parlors, swimming pool, labor bureau, and other types of service such as medical, legal, and spiritual.”

In 1924, construction on the building was begun on a lot that had been owned by the Salvation Army since the 1910s. The formal structure was deliberately located on the Boulevard of the Allies, a formidable boulevard that was completed just one year earlier. It also provided a central downtown location, which was easily accessible for the community it was hoping to serve. A newspaper article from 1920 stated that the location, diagonally located across 3rd Avenue from a major post office and government building, was “ideal for the work and the purpose of the building.”

The architect for both the 1924 section of the building and the 1930 addition was Thomas Pringle, and the estimated initial cost was $500,000. The builder was the Pittsburgh firm of Rose and Fisher. The cornerstone was laid on May 18, 1924, by Judge Joseph Buffington (1855-1947) and many documents, including current newspapers and tributes to the Salvation Army from notable Americans, including then President Calvin Coolidge, were placed within it. The first phase of construction was completed in 1925 and the building first appears on a 1927 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. The interior of the building contained a multi-purpose program that was carefully arranged according to the objectives of the Salvation Army.

Referred to as “one of the most complete Army buildings in the United States,” the 1924 section of the building was essentially divided into a northern and a southern portion. In the northern portion, fronting 3rd Avenue, the lower floors contained the Relief Department, which provided for “temporal needs” and the emergency hospital, which was the only one of its kind in downtown Pittsburgh. The upper floors contained a men’s dormitory, as well as the Hotel Argonne. The Salvation Army operated several Hotel Argonnes throughout the country, including in New York, New York, and Lima, Ohio. The hotels were dedicated to the veterans of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in World War I. It was the largest battle in United States military history with 1.2 million American soldiers involved. These hotels were originally established to provide affordable rooms to servicemen, hence the name. The men’s dormitory provided a temporary place for needy men to sleep with access to showers and laundry facilities.

At the time of its opening in 1925, each person was asked for a twenty-five to thirty cent donation for the use of the dormitory, but no one was turned away for his inability to pay. Wake-up time was at 6:00 a.m. every day, other than Sunday, so that the men could be up and looking for employment. The Hotel Argonne provided furnished rooms and baths to “the working man and others who are not able financially to stop at the higher priced hotel or who seek to avoid some of the cheaper-priced ones.” When the hotel opened, rates began at $1. The Hotel Argonne closed in c. 1935 for unknown reasons and there is no record of it relocating elsewhere in Pittsburgh.

The southern portion of the building, fronting Boulevard of the Allies, contained a tile swimming pool, a gymnasium, locker room, boiler room, and storage spaces in the basement. The first floor primarily contained an auditorium that could accommodate 800 people, as well as smaller auditoriums, club rooms, and class rooms. The auditorium was used for Salvation Army functions, including senior activities; Christmas toy drives and blood drives; funeral services; and general public meetings. The third floor served as the general offices and executive headquarters of the Salvation Army Western Pennsylvania Division. The primary departments of the Divisional Headquarters oversaw relief of needy families, casual relief, prison work, and relief of prisoners’ families, missing friends, free employment bureau, evangelistic work, and a clearing-house for all Army activities. The work coordinated by the headquarters included the provision of temporary shelter, medical treatment, replacement of clothing and furniture, transportation, counseling, job placement and training, case assessment and work, and payment of security deposits. In addition to the services provided at this building, the Divisional Headquarters also oversaw the operations of the 17 other centers mentioned previously. The upper floors of the southern portion and the entirety of the 1930 addition accommodated the Evangeline Residence for Young Women, which was established in 1927. The eight floor also contained a dining room and kitchen, which served both the residents and employees of the building, and the ninth floor contained the laundry.

In 2009, the Salvation Army sold the building and relocated to a 38,000 square foot headquarters building in the Carnegie Office Park. After languishing for some time, the location found new life when Greenway Realty Holdings acquired it five years later. Intent on saving the structure, the company completely refurbished it into a lovely boutique hotel. But its subsequent renovation did much to preserve the historical integrity of the building. The project left most of the original architectural features in place, including the structure’s beautiful limestone exterior and exquisite woodwork. Several cherished icons associated with the erstwhile charity center remained intact, such as the massive scoreboard that once hung within its gymnasium. Debuting as Distrikt Hotel Pittsburgh in 2017, this historical structure has been a celebrated fixture in downtown Pittsburgh ever since.

Distrikt Hotel Pittsburgh, Curio Collection by Hilton, a member of Historic Hotels of America since 2019, dates back to 1924.