By Becky Krystal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010; F05
Browsing the hotel options in downtown Pittsburgh, I found myself thoroughly disheartened. Oh, there were plenty -- if I didn't mind shelling out more than $200 a night, a bit painful considering that it was a) a weeknight and b) the middle of winter.
Another writer, who lives in the city, recommended the Priory Hotel, which in a previous life had served as a home for Benedictine monks and priests. A room with a king bed would set me back a mere $109. Sold!
The 25-room establishment sits on Pittsburgh's North Shore. In online forums, several commenters warned of a somewhat sketchy neighborhood, even claiming to have witnessed drug deals.
I saw nothing of the sort. Instead, I found what appeared to be a typical neighborhood, anchored by a supermarket at one end of the street, with plenty of brick facades to please the eye. The public housing described in the aforementioned posts looked no different from an ordinary apartment building.
There is, however, nothing ordinary about the appearance of the Priory. The front of the 1888 neoclassical building, which faces a splendid view of the Pittsburgh skyline, boasts several dozen beautiful arched windows. Crosses sit at several spots where the roof comes to a point.
A friendly clerk greeted me at the check-in. He handed me my room key, which was attached to about an eight-inch-long wood cutout of a key. On seeing my reaction to being given something much larger than the key cards I'm accustomed to, he said that I could leave the key at the front desk when I went out if I didn't want to carry it around. Fair enough.
I admired the high ceilings as I made my way to my second-floor room. The centerpiece of my abode for the night was a king-size sleigh bed. I appreciated the ample seating, including three chairs, though one with fraying upholstery had seen better days.
Baby blue walls nicely set off the white wood around the fireplace, and on top of the mantel I discovered a few biographies from a series about the Founding Fathers called "American Statesman." I gingerly paged through a book about George Washington by Henry Cabot Lodge, taking pains not to damage the late-1800s edition.
Unfortunately, an antique book wasn't the only thing I felt compelled to tiptoe around. While contemplating a shower, I opened the door to the small stall to find a completely off-putting sight: Mildew and soap scum. Not just a little between the tiles, which I'll admit to struggling with at home sometimes. The shower's smooth floor looked as though it hadn't been cleaned in -- well, I won't even venture a guess. Had I not been stricken with a pounding headache, I would probably have been more motivated to lodge a complaint. But considering that most of my day had consisted of a car ride, I figured that I could safely postpone a shower until I got home the next afternoon.
Things turned around the next morning with a basic but sufficient breakfast spread. And when I told the woman at the front desk that I planned to visit one of Pittsburgh's famed inclines, she graciously printed out maps and directions for me. Such genuine hospitality turned out to be the answer to my wallet's prayers.