I wasn’t paying too much attention to the disquisition of amenities and services being conveyed to me by the lady at the front desk when I checked into Pittsburgh’s Hotel Monaco after 10 hours on an Amtrak train from New York, but it sounded dreamily pleasant. All I really wanted was to stumble up to my room and crawl into bed, postponing the processing of all that information for the following day. As I lied down in my large, comfortable bed with the oversized kelly-green headboard, I briefly pondered the bright yellow birdcage enclosing the chandelier over the end table next to me. What an odd accent, I thought, as I drifted off to sleep in my virtually soundproof room. I wonder what that’s about?
When I stirred the next morning and opened the curtains to a brilliantly sunny day, I began to notice that the birdcage wasn’t the only bit of avian whimsy in my room. The fabric of the roll pillow that I had tossed off the bed the night before contained a few birds in the design. The lampshade also bore a colorful bird pattern. Enlarged and framed postage stamps from around the world hung over the desk with the ergonomic chair, including one with a tropical bird. Something curious was definitely going on here, and on my way out for the day, when I noticed that the do not disturb sign featured a little sleeping parakeet, I was determined to learn the secret.
The Hotel Monaco in Baltimore, Maryland, where I had stayed a few years prior, was situated in the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad headquarters building, and a subtle train design cropped up here and there, so I assumed that this Pittsburgh building had originally been for the birds. But, alas, there was no historical reference here. Erected in 1903 in the Beaux Arts style for an electric company, the building served a variety of clients over the last century until the hotel took over and the hotelier opted to instill a sense of the exotic, of traveling to foreign lands, throughout the interior by incorporating the bird theme.
Over the next few days, I began to look forward to spying more of these hidden gems. I found cranes in the two lamps bookending the front desk, their heads popping up above the shades and their spindly legs below. A wall display of empty bird cages occupied an arched niche in the upper-lobby living room. A cabinet painted with an owl perched on a tree branch stood behind the table where the hotel hosted a nightly wine tasting, illuminated from above by a chandelier with bird talons. Wallpaper with a repeating necktie design lining the inside my closet featured one with an ostrich. And it wasn’t until my third day that I noticed the ceramic base of the lamp on my desk was actually a yellow penguin, a nod to the city’s professional hockey team.
Of course, even without the quirkiness, this hotel stands out. Located in the heart of downtown, it’s in easy walking distance of restaurants, shops, mass transit, the Amtrak station, parks, and the yellow bridges that link the Golden Triangle downtown area to Mount Washington across the Monongahela River to the south and to the stadiums, casino, museums, and National Aviary across the Allegheny River to the north.
Once the doormen welcome you into the interior, you enter an inviting oasis, from the cold citrus-infused water awaiting you to the relaxing upper lobby with its fireplace and oversized tic-tac-toe game for your amusement. Deep green walls in the hallways on the way to your room make you feel cool and relaxed, and the fine stenciling design in your room lends a classical, elegant touch. A bold yellow wallpaper in your bathroom energizes you for the day, which you can start with a little stretching on the yoga mat you’ll find in your closet.
The hotel restaurant, The Commoner, was the only space I saw that did not continue the bird concept. But, then again, I focused my attention on the enlarged antique maps of Pittsburgh on the walls and on the two breakfasts I enjoyed here: buckwheat pancakes with pomegranate molasses butter and local honey one morning, a buckwheat waffle with citrus mascarpone, charred peaches, and bourbon honey another. For something more casual at the end of the day, I headed up to the outdoor biergarten on the ninth floor for German-influenced bar bites and a deep selection of European beers.
The Hotel Monaco attracts an eclectic clientele: pet owners, Starkist employees attending a conference onsite, wedding guests. I recommend you join the list — you’ll have an unexpectedly fun time while you’re here, and you’ll remember it well once you’ve left.