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Downtown: Monongahela House


Old Hotel Haven for Many Stars

From Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, 2 June 1935, by George Seibel.

Crossing the bridge from the South Side to Smithfield Street, I saw there were no windows in the Monongahela House. it was like a statue of history without eyes. for the Monongahela, oldest of our big hotels, has seen many chapters of history--including a theatrical history.
There was a time when every great actor who came to Pittsburgh from Broadway or abroad was a guest of this caravanserai. Among its guests during my time were President Grant, Mark Twain, James G. Blaine, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Bill Nye, Henry Ward Beecher and Robert G. Ingersoll. But to me the hotel will always be an immortal memory because in its lobby I met the first great actor I had ever seen face to face. It was Lawrence Barrett.
Edwin Booth stopped there, too, and I have seen the pair of them walking along Smithfield Street after a matinee, stopping at a confectionery store near Diamond to buy cream puffs. Yes, Hamlet and Cassius ate cream puffs!

The Cross of Shylock
My meeting with Barrett was closer than a street encounter. He had been playing "The Merchant of Venice" at old Library Hall, then one of Pittsburgh's two leading theaters. On the sleeve of his Jewish gabardine he wore an embroidered cross. How did this pillar of the synagogue in Venice come to wear the Christian symbol on his sleeve? I was sent with a letter asking a solution to the mystery.
The letter was sent up to Lawrence Barrett's room, and a little later a bellboy took me to the second floor. When I got to the head of the staircase Barrett emerged from his room and talked to me for about five minutes.
It was like an interview with the Equator or the Zodiac, for Lawrence Barrett to me was a greater man than Napoleon and Gen. Grant. He had a majestic head with a thin halo of silver hair; his dark eyes, deeply sunken, burned with fiery luster; his voice was low and musical as he explained about the cross on Shylock's sleeve.

Law for the Jews
In Venice, it appears, there was a law which compelled the Jews to wear this symbol in order to humiliate and insult them. It was a pleasant little way of expressing the Venetian idea of Christian love. Lawrence Barrett, making studies for the production delved into Venetian lore and learned about this law. So he put the cross upon his sleeve, just as the real Shylock would have had to do on the Rialto.
I thought of that meeting when I saw the windows were gone from the Monongahela House. Through those windows Lawrence Barrett and Edwin Booth must have watched the boats upon the river and the street lamps winking from Mt. Washington.
Among the great actresses who stopped at the Monongahela House were Modjeska, Margaret Mather, Lilly Langtry, Clara Morris, Annie Pixley, Fanny Davenport and Mary Anderson.
Fanny Davenport, who died years ago, was the finest of our American tragediennes, though born in London. Among her first appearances on the stage she played the child in "Metamora" with Ediwn Forrest. Her only rival was Modjeska, born in Poland, and an exile because of her husband's patriotism. When she first came to America she took up chicken farming in California, but soon she was the foremost actress on the American stage. Mary Anderson had a very short and very brilliant stage career and is still living in England.

Register of Fame
All those famous player queens stopped at the Monongahela House, and so did Kate Claxton, who could have gone on forever playing "The Two Orphans." So did "Lotta," the best-beloved soubrette of her time, who made more money than any other actress on the American stage, and must have been worth at least four million dollars when she died.
Maggie Mitchell was another popular darling who used to stop at the Monon when she came to play "Franchon the Cricket." That play was as popular as "The Count of Monte Cristo," played by James O'Neill. Two other players had roles they could not get rid of--J. K. Emmet as "Fritz, Our German Cousin," and Frank Mayo as "Davy Crocket." Both were often guests at the Monongahela House, and so was Joe Jefferson, the beloved Rip.

Stars across the Sea
All the great foreign stars who visited Pittsburgh stopped at this hotel. During the first week of January in 1886 Tommaso Salvini was a guest. He was probably the greatest Othello that ever lived.
Henry Irving did not visit Pittsburgh on his first American tour, but was a guest at the Monon during Christmas week of 1884. I think it was in this hotel, that Christmas Day, that Ellen Terry produced her famous Christmas pudding which she had smuggled over from England, and when everybody was feelng happy they discovered it couldn't be eaten because it tasted of camphor. The maid had packed it with the furs, presumably to keep out the moths.
Perhaps the greatest celebrity of all that ever slept under this roof was Adelina Patti. Her golden voice had earned her millions before she retired to a castle in Wales. Patti's only rival, Christine Nilsson, the Swedish nightingale, also stopped at the Monon; so did Minnie Hauk and Maria Materna, two other darlings of the opera. Emma Abbott stoppped there several times. She sang grand opera in English, and a few years later stopped for a long long time under a different Pittsburgh roof--when she died she was creamted here, and her ashes reposed for many years in the crematory, with no one to claim them.
Celebrities of all kinds stopped at the Monon, among them such diverse personages as Dwight L. Moody and Buffalo Bill, the Rev. T. DeWitt Talmage and the agnostic Bob Ingersoll.
The old hostelry was often visited by opposites--for instance, soon after General Tom Thumb and his wife, it entertained Chang the Chinese giant.
Some of the people who stopped there were eminent in ways we do not appreciate any more. Jules Levy was the great cornet virtuoso; his only rival was Liberati. Today who would go to a cornet concert?

He Was Always Good
Thomas E. Keene always stopped at the Monongahela House, so did John McCullough. Keene wass the hero of the gallery gods, though a few preferred Fred Warde, who died a few months ago. Warde also used to stop at the Monon, as did Louis James, another famous Shakespearean. Among comedians, besides Joe Jefferson, there were Robson and Crane, the "Two Dromios," and Nat Goodwin, who could have been greatest of them all.


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