Filed Under Business

Ellis Hotel

Green Book-listed lodging and nightspot

This now vacant lot was once the site of the Ellis Hotel, a safe haven for traveling Black artists and celebrities, and a hub of culture for the local Hill community.

Originally established by James and Frank Ellis in Pittsburgh's South Side, the hotel eventually relocated to this Centre Avenue address when Frank Ellis and his wife purchased the former Black YWCA building. They transformed the spacious 45-room structure into a centerpiece hotel in the Hill District, opening in 1957. Once opened, the new Ellis was touted as one of the finest establishments in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, gaining a listing in the “Green Book” as a safe place for black travelers visiting Pittsburgh.

The Green Book, officially titled The Negro Motorist Green Book, was published annually from 1936 to 1967, and was a lifeline for those navigating a divided America.  The book directed Black travelers to restaurants, hotels or service stations that welcomed them with open arms. In an era when downtown Pittsburgh hotels had an unspoken "whites only" policy, the Ellis Hotel was a sanctuary where luminaries like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington found a home away from home.

Frank Ellis was a president of the Hotel Owners Alliance, an organization consisting of Black hoteliers in the city which formed in 1952 in response to a series of police raids on Black-owned hotels on charges of disorderly conduct or violation of liquor laws. The Hotel Owners Alliance were united in the goal of continuing to provide “courteous service and reasonable prices for their patrons." 

The Ellis Hotel was instrumental in Pittsburgh’s jazz culture, hosting famous jazz artists of the time, such as Al Morall, Danny Varlotta and Don Molica. Eddie Russ and his combo could commonly be heard serenading hotel patrons with his “smooth melodic deliveries” that were said to make music lovers “sit up and listen”.

The new Ellis was touted as one of the finest establishments in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, gaining a listing in the “Green Book” as a safe place for black travelers visiting Pittsburgh

More famous patrons were also known to make an appearance - Ella Fitzgerald and pianist Duke Ellington were a rare, but highly anticipated performance. In a time when businesses could turn away patrons on the basis of race, the Ellis Hotel hospitably received Black celebrities such as Jackie Robinson, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, and Ray Charles.

The Ellis Hotel was known for its entertainment and food alike - the hotel's Shangri-La Lounge showcased jazz luminaries and served up french-fried shrimp and steak alongside the soulful tunes.

The Ellis Hotel frequently appears in the plays of August Wilson, including Jitney, Two Trains Running, and King Hedley II. In all three stories, Wilson depicts the hotel as a rendezvous point for escapades between lovers.

Like many Hill District businesses, the hotel faced a series of difficulties beginning in the 1970s.  In 1980, the building was ultimately converted into a senior living center; however, a 1995 fire left the structure abandoned, and it was demolished in 2002.

While it no longer stands today, the Ellis Hotel is a symbol of Black resilience and a testament to the challenges faced and the victories won during an era of upheaval.

 

Images

Ellis Hotel after closing Exterior of Ellis Hotel after its closing Source: from August Wilson Digital Now Universe Map Creator: Unknown Date: c. 1970s

Location

2044 Centre Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Metadata

Amanda Ryczek and Dianne Lemon, “Ellis Hotel,” Hill District Digital History, accessed June 17, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/34.