The hottest ticket in the summer of 1966 belonged to any of the 1,000 people lucky enough to be a member of the Pittsburgh Press Club, which included journalists but also many of the city’s business leaders.
With its mahogany and walnut paneling, private elevator and plush chairs upholstered in quilted fabrics, the club opened that July in the penthouse above 300 Sixth Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh. Newspapers from around the world papered the ceiling of the bar, and floor-to-ceiling windows revealed views toward the Allegheny River and the confluence.
“The clubhouse and conviviality are practically synonymous; the club began in the tavern and to the tavern it always returns,” reporter James D. Van Trump wrote in a building trade magazine about the club’s opening. “Eating, drinking and good cheer are the proper accompaniments of whatever business is conducted, but seemly housing for these activities is also important.”
Decades before the internet disrupted the newspaper business to its core, the Pittsburgh Press Club served as a lavish gathering place for curmudgeonly editors, white-collared steel company executives and late-night luminaries.
The club had deep roots too, allowing its members to claim they belonged to the oldest chartered press club in the world. Sadly, that history did not extend into the future as the current Press Club of Western Pennsylvania exists as a separate, unrelated entity.
The old Pittsburgh Press Club dated itself to 1881 when a group of journalists met at city hall to create an organization that would “take care of newspapermen of inadequate means who were stricken with illness and to see that those who died were decently buried.”
The new group barely had the resources to care for itself and sputtered out of existence within a few years, until another with more money formed and applied for a formal charter. Press clubs in Denver, Milwaukee and Birmingham formed earlier but apparently did not have the foresight to seek a charter.
Souvenir programs from the club’s annual theater event at the turn of the 20th Century show an executive board comprised of white men with bushy facial hair that counted both Andrew Carnegie and his apprentice Charles M. Schwab as “life members.”
The program from 1907 celebrates the city’s “seven great dailies” — The Gazette Times, the Chronicle Telegraph, the Dispatch, Sun, Press, Leader and Post.
In those early days, a woman named Bessie Bramble worked as the lone woman reporter in town — with a reputation for being able to “sling a nawsty pen when she wanted,” according to a 1923 news article. Bramble applied to join the club and was accepted in 1892.
The men made her the club librarian, and she seems to have been the exception for the following decades when women were welcomed to visit and cautioned to stay away from an infamous roundtable where the same 13 men had lunch daily while sharing “risqué” stories.
Records at the Heinz History Center make no mention of when the organization first accepted people of color as members.
Even after it was chartered, the press club struggled, going dormant in 1936 during the Great Depression, trying to reorganize in 1947, and finally reopening inside the Sherwyn Hotel in 1955.
In 1961, the club moved into its own four-story at 208 Sixth Ave., and then across the street five years later, when that space was razed to build the office tower that’s now occupied by K&L Gates.
Sitting in the penthouse above the old McCreery’s Department Store, a cream terra cotta building designed by architect Daniel Burnham in 1903-04, the press club boasted 18,000 square feet of guest space that included a main dining room, a taproom, a billiards and game room, and a lobby with a woolen carpet handwoven in Puerto Rico with the club’s monogram.
The menu featured the Press Club Special Sandwich, with fresh flake crabmeat on golden white toast, and a cheese sauce au gratin ($2.75 in 1971), along with daily specials such as broiled fresh Boston scrod à la Press Club and “genuine live turtle soup.”
The menu also included a brief history of the club that ended with the hopeful statement: “No longer do we have our founders’ fears of destitution.”
Maybe they should have.
First, the IRS revoked the club’s nonprofit status in the 1970s for charging members differing rates based on their status; journalists paid less than publicists and business executives. Then, by the mid-1980s, the club started raising rates as fewer members stopped by for meals. It filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors in 1990.
GNC purchased the building in the 2000s for its world headquarters, and a guard at the front desk said it uses the penthouse for storage.
The building could find new life again: GNC is moving to the Strip District, and a New York City developer has looked at the building for residential development.
Andrew Conte, founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may email him.