Pittsburgh is a city of chain hotels – which is where I usually stay due to elite benefits and point accrual – but on occasion there is sufficient cause to divert from the pattern. Ace Hotel Pittsburgh is just such a hotel which demands your attention.
We have long known of the Ace brand (locations in New York City, New Orleans, London, Panama, LA, Chicago, Portland, Seattle, Palm Springs,) from our always fashionable friends in Manchester, owners of Dusk Til Pawn, Noho, Wood & Co and the new Cooper Hall. We are in no way as cool as our friends in the U.K. and find ourselves out of place at the W hotels but right at home at Andaz. Ace Hotels has the cool kid thing in “spades”.
Critical to Ace Hotels’ brand is a need to locate themselves in an area with young, forward thinking, well-heeled travelers and professionals. Ace found a perfect location down the street from Google and Uber’s Pittsburgh HQ, home to their Driverless division. Technically, the neighborhood is East Liberty, but that’s not going to draw many eyes outside of Pittsburgh locals. The area is at the last stages of gentrification and flows into both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon sides of town (Shadyside) while also being a short 5-10 minute drive from downtown.
The site is a converted YMCA building and former men’s shelter. As such, the rooms are less uniform than at other properties which adds to the hotel’s uniqueness but also limits a guest’s reasonable expectation of what they might find.
Ace Hotel Pittsburgh is approximately 35 minutes from Pittsburgh International Airport, though at peak periods you can easily double that transit time.
There is very little consistency to the layout of the rooms because of its previous purpose as a shelter. Rooms types are Small, Medium, Large and Suite. To be clear, when they say small – they really aren’t kidding. While it’s not the Paris experience of opening the door and hitting the toilet, or leaving your luggage at the checkin desk in New York City, for Pittsburgh the small room is very small.
The medium and larger rooms offer a little more space with the exact same amenities (which I will cover shortly). The layouts are unique and slightly different in each one but the elements remain the same. To save time, space and monotony, imagine the Small room but with slightly wider walls in a nearly identical layout. Now imagine that room with a longer layout – that’s the large.
Don’t misunderstand my analysis of the rooms, there are slight differences but looking back at photos, I don’t think they would be easily discerned in a blog post. The wider rooms (Medium and Large) would be an easy choice over small, but if you decide to stay here and room size is a concern, you will want the suite.
Ace Hotel Pittsburgh’s bathrooms are big winners for me. First, there is not a single shower over tub with an ever-groping, never-cleaned curtain. The curtain is far enough away from the shower space where a guest can avoid coming into contact, something most US hotels under $300/nt do not offer.
Attractive tile work and a classic step-in shower occupy the rooms Small to Large. For the suites, however, a clawfoot tub are also added. This is a luxurious touch and something that Pittsburgh hotels really don’t splash out on for the $200/nt price range. The Small to Large rooms also utilize a sliding barn door which adds a nice touch. The bathroom felt thoughtful and premium which included the toiletries (next section) that we came to purchase originally.
Before we ever visited an Ace Hotel property we were ordering Rudy’s Barbershop 1-2-3 (shower gel, shampoo, conditioner). Our aforementioned Mancunian friends stocked their own shower with the goods after trying them at the Ace Hotel New York City. We loved the product so much that we started purchasing Rudy’s 3-4 bottles at a time and paying $20 in shipping costs. That wasn’t sustainable, but luckily, with an Ace Hotel in our city we can simply drive to the property and purchase the same full-size bottles from the front desk.
Declan, a friendly and helpful valet at the property, and clearly an Ace Hotel enthusiast told us tales of guests removing the entire large bottles right off the wall and adopting them. This is discouraged unlike other sample-size bottles you might find at other hotels. Considering that the three bottles would have retailed for $20 each, that guest, would have gotten about half of his nightly cost back in soap – not a bad deal at all.
While Brad, over at Travel Codex, is the toiletry aficionado, I don’t believe he has ever bought toiletries in bulk before staying at a hotel. Ace Hotel offers the Rudy’s Barbershop line consistently across their brand, which is an important note because so much of the hotel is tailored to local artisans and products. Also offered is a hand-made bar soap at each of their properties.
Ace Hotel Pittsburgh, like their other hotels, are all about being local, being authentic, and having respect for the community in which they operate. I can appreciate that, though not all of the touches were a winner for me.
Martin guitars are custom-made for Ace properties and adorn all of the suites. Our local guide, Declan mentioned that Ace hotels got their start as an alternative hotel for musicians and this is why the brand features the guitars and record players in every suite.
It’s appropriate that in Pennsylvania, the Amish would supply much of the wood furniture in the property. It’s certainly not cheap, though for me the aesthetic is lacking, the principal is clever. A wooden rail borders the room with peg holes allowing for items on the wall to be moved as desired. The wood is excellent quality, as is the craftsmanship – but I’m not really one to critique woodworking over a rich IPA and a plate of bacon like some of my flannel-enrobed contemporaries. One Amish aspect I really did appreciate was the inclusion of a footlocker at the end of the bed. It is a great way to store clothes and luggage for longer stays and I prefer it to a chest of drawers.
The desk is also large (pictured in the Room section) and has ample storage underneath the desk surface. It’s smart, it’s useful and it’s welcome. This is also where guests will find a mini fridge and some snacks and liquors for purchase. While I understand that the theme is local, it can be overdone.
As a Pittsburgher, I don’t know a single person in this city that drinks Pittsburgh liquor (not beer, but liquor) – I wasn’t even aware it existed; this isn’t exactly Havana. Its inclusion is a big miss for me and calls in to question whether the choice to be local should always supersede a major national brand or if quality and taste should factor in too. I didn’t get a chance to try the coffee, but I shudder to imagine how a cup of Pittsburgh espresso would taste (I thought that was a nickname for one of the three rivers).
The comforter is handmade in McKees Rocks, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh. You will find the same comforter throughout the hotel in every room. It was comfortable and softer than it looks. It was a welcome change from the disease-laden comforter bed spreads at a national chain.
In addition to the Amish woodwork and the local linens, guests will find other creative custom touches everywhere they look. Framed artwork of local legends are hung in the bay windows overlooking the 198 year-old church across the street. Handmade fabric escape plans stitch their way to the exits and do-not-disturb signs that read a cheeky “Not Now” are placed on handles. It is in the micro details that Ace Hotel Pittsburgh impresses, far more than the macro – it’s the aspects you don’t think about that the hoteliers put a lot of time into.
This is just as well because the macro issues that most hotels focus on (layouts, room design, parking) were mostly forgone conclusions. The building was altered but not dramatically customized; parking is done by valet as there aren’t really any other choices – there’s no pool despite a sign on April 1st to the contrary.
Ace Hotel guests don’t consider these as inconveniences because the property speaks to certain ethos of their client base. This one, like other Ace hotels, is well-placed, and delivers the small, thoughtful gestures that their guests prefer over the consistent, national chain normalcy that other frequent travelers find comforting. That being said, parking is terrible.
As a retired YMCA, Ace did a perfect job of utilizing the old charm of the gym as an event space. Keeping elements in place, such as the hardwood floors, some hoops and an amazing balcony track keeps the feel of the room light. Modern additions include the projector and screen which sits in front of a pock-marked painting that looks original but in reality, is actually Kanye West as a boxer.
We also saw the formal auditorium which could be used for a weddings and corporate events. The original black and red tile floor was restored and Lucy wasted no time doing her best Flashdance.
Any corporate hotel chain marketing video will show a bustling lobby full of guests talking on the lobby couches, wine glasses in hand – probably laughing. In my experience, the lobby is filled for two reasons in most hotels. The first is a guest waiting for someone to come down who always seems to be late. The second is a combination of those at the bar that have no intention of leaving and occupy every hotel bar they encounter, and those having a drink before going on to their dinner plans.
During multiple passes, Ace Hotel Pittsburgh’s was seemingly always occupied often times near capacity. There were some hangers-on at the bar chatting up a bartender certainly, but there were also some dining at an off-hour (2pm), some working at communal tables and still others just hanging out on the couches for better than an hour (clearly not waiting for someone to come downstairs).
The use by guests of the lobby speaks to the environment the property created, more co-working than dry checkin desk. This is one of the rare occasions where the lobby helps to sell the property. I would much rather writing blog posts and doing work from a communal table in the lobby near the massive windows than in my hotel room. I couldn’t say the same about a Hampton Inn.
Doing a quick check on hotels.com the day we were at the property suggested that rates between $129 and $189 could be expected. Hotel Tonight had a spot discount price of $120, more than reasonable for the area and the quality of the hotel, though, if you have a corporate travel budget that will allow you to secure the suite, do so. It’s under-priced for the market and delivers some much-needed space that the smaller rooms lack.
One frustration I found when booking a prospective room at the Ace Hotel website was in the pricing and failure to add-in an easily qualified discount. For example, the classic rate is first displayed and though I selected a stay that would checkin and checkout within their low season pricing, I had to have the wherewithal to click “Warmups” to get the winter rates. Just why?
I’m not sure if it is an attempt to be sneaky, bad tech, or just an oversight but either way it doesn’t make sense to me. The purpose of offering low season (“Warmup” rates) is to incentivize guests to choose your property. If you discreetly place those prices on your site and do not have the tech to automatically price this in then a guest may choose to stay elsewhere when the property indeed does have a lower rate.
It also pushes guests to Hotels.com and other OTAs where those Warmup rates are already loaded and Ace will pay a commission. You would think someone would just pop into the aforementioned lobby and grab a Googler for about ten minutes of tech work in exchange for a couple of free lattes.
Should You Stay There?
I have commented before about not being cool enough to appreciate elements of Millenial brands despite being just 32 at the time of writing. I really couldn’t appreciate the DJ in the lobby of the W Hotel Bangkok or the overall campiness of the property. Here is feels different, genuine, but for a different crowd. I am unapologetically not a hipster. That being said, the rate is great, it feels premium even if it’s a little more “flannel and organic IPA” than I might usually find myself. If for nothing else, the location is great, the price is right, the toiletries are amazing and the lobby is some place I just want to hang out. If that sounds like a good plan, book a night the next time you find yourself in Steel City.