6 Important Buildings from Pittsburgh’s Black History
Despite efforts to preserve noteworthy African American architectural sites, many continue to deteriorate.
When she leads visitors on tours of the Hill District, Kim Ellis likes to point out the state historical marker recognizing August Wilson’s birthplace.
She is even more pleased to show them the simple brick building behind it, which is where the celebrated playwright — who was also her uncle — grew up. Surprisingly, the Pulitzer Prize winner’s house at 1727 Bedford Ave., built in the 1840s, sat derelict and at risk of collapse for years. But now it is in the midst of a major renovation to become a community arts center.
“A sign is history, but there’s just something totally different about having a physical space, a literal piece of evidence that tells a wider story,” says Ellis, a historian and playwright who is teaching a Carnegie Mellon University drama class on Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” of 10 plays, nearly all of which are set in the Hill District.
No structure is immune to decay and demolition, no matter its historical significance. For buildings that hold a special meaning for the African American community, the problem is acute. Many were toppled during 20th-century urban renewal projects that razed swaths of historically black neighborhoods. Others that escaped the bulldozers, such as Wilson’s childhood home, often sit vacant, at the mercy of weather and targets for vandalism.
More than a mere public works project, the ongoing construction of a $32 million park capping the man-made gorge of Interstate 579 is being touted as a symbolic reattachment of Downtown to the Hill District. Backers hope it will augur more enthusiasm for projects grounded in black history, such as the August Wilson House and the New Granada Theater, which was designed in 1927 by Louis Bellinger, an accomplished local architect.
First opened as the Pythian Temple, a fraternal lodge for black construction workers, its second-floor ballroom hosted such jazz greats as Jellyroll Morton and Duke Ellington, who was crowned “King of Jazz” there during a national radio broadcast. Harry Hendel, a Jewish promoter and theater owner, bought the venue in 1937, remodeled the first floor into a movie theater, and renamed it the New Granada. Along with other noted neighborhood venues such as the Crawford Grill, the ballroom, dubbed the Savoy, continued to draw headliners to the Hill District throughout jazz’s heyday.
The building has stood vacant since the 1980s, and plans to reopen it have been around almost as long. But the years of community meetings, blueprint reviews and fundraising efforts are about to produce visible results, according to Marimba Milliones, CEO of the Hill Community Development Corp., which owns the New Granada.
Construction will begin this summer on a 40-apartment residential complex adjacent to the theater, Milliones says. Her organization’s New Granada Square project envisions a revitalized concert venue as the centerpiece for a block of new housing, retail, offices and education space in a project she estimates will cost $47 million.
“It really brings together community, commerce, innovation and culture in a way that contributes to Pittsburgh’s regional attractiveness as a place that cares about diverse culture,” says Milliones. “It’s a fuller telling of our regional story and the American story.”
A comprehensive 1994 catalog of African American historical sites in Allegheny County for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission listed 149 buildings still extant, with churches accounting for just over half of them. The oldest religious structure in the study was St. Paul AME Zion in Carnegie. Founded by a previously enslaved woman, it was erected in 1868, when the borough was still called Mansfield.
Unfortunately, now it’s a parking lot. The church was badly damaged during the flood of 2004, and its dwindling congregation had little choice but to sell.
Pittsburgh’s first black church, Bethel AME, was chartered in 1818. But while Bethel’s congregation has moved several times, most recently in 1959, Brown Chapel AME Church has stood on the same corner on the North Side since 1865.
A Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation plaque decorates the church’s yellow brick façade; the organization also contributed $5,000 toward the cost of a new roof last year. The Rev. Aisha Tate says the congregation, which once exceeded 300 people but now numbers fewer than 70, is seeking money to fix the stained glass windows and repair damage to the walls from the formerly leaking roof.
They can take heart, at least, that Brown Chapel AME has made it through worse weather problems. A storm that hit in the middle of the Easter Sunday service in 1902 tore half the roof off. Rather than repair, the faithful scrapped their damaged sanctuary and built a new church on its foundations.
“I know we are all blessed for this church to have been here for so long, through all the trials and tribulations,” says the Rev. Tate. “The people stuck together, they prayed together, and God worked miracles for them.”
Dan Holland, the lead researcher and co-author of the 1994 county site survey, went on to create the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh in 2002, partly to try to save some of the buildings he had visited. Many require substantial investment and are in neighborhoods where residents might justifiably be concerned about gentrification. But the need is urgent, he says.
“These communities have changed so much, but they have a rich history that we have to recognize and rekindle,” Holland says.
Now teaching history at the University of Pittsburgh, Holland says he hopes projects such as the August Wilson House and New Granada Square can encourage more people to value Pittsburgh’s black historical sites enough to do what is necessary to preserve them.
“The question is,” he says, “can the right people do the right things for these properties before it’s too late?”
6 Important Buildings from Pittsburgh’s Black History
Chatham Village, Mt. Washington
This stone and brick house built in 1849 was a stop on the Underground Railroad, the secret network by which fugitive slaves fled north to freedom in Canada. Built by attorney and newspaper publisher Thomas Bigham for his wife Maria Louisa Lewis on a sizable plot of land she had inherited, the house was ideally isolated for the role, overlooking the road approaching the city along Saw Mill Run.
Bigham, a stalwart and vocal abolitionist, was elected several times to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in the years before and during the Civil War, first as a Whig and later as a Republican. He also served two terms as a state senator during and after the war. The house stayed in the family until 1931, when it was purchased by the Buhl Foundation and incorporated into the Chatham Village development. Today it is a social hall and clubhouse for residents.
The Hendel Building
241 Forbes Ave., Downtown
Jewish grocer Louis Hendel built his “Skinny Building” in 1926 on a narrow parcel left over from a street widening project. He leased the top two floors to a black restaurateur, Clarence Jefferson, who opened the Lincoln Restaurant in 1928. The only establishment in all Downtown that admitted black diners for a sit-down meal, the Lincoln Restaurant advertised “cozy booths for two” in the 6-foot-wide space. But it did not last long, folding in the early years of the Great Depression.
Hailed in the Pittsburgh Courier as a “prominent friend” of black people, Hendel and his brother Harry also built the Roosevelt Theater, an upscale cinema on Centre Avenue in the Hill District where black patrons could sit where they wished rather than being restricted to the balcony. Harry Hendel would go on to manage other celebrated Hill District theaters and clubs, including the New Granada.
Brown Chapel AME Church
1400 Boyle St., North Side
The African Methodist Episcopalians were America’s first organized black denomination, founded in Philadelphia by free blacks who were tired of being discriminated against by white worshipers. Named after one of the denomination’s early leaders, Morris Brown, this second AME congregation west of the Alleghenies first met in 1837. After several moves, the congregation built a church in 1865 at the corner of Hemlock and Boyle streets. They replaced it with the current structure after a 1902 storm tore the roof off during the pastor’s Easter Sunday sermon.
Moses Howard, a prosperous black merchant in what was then the city of Allegheny, was a founding and longtime member of the congregation. Among the church’s early benefactors was Charles Avery, a businessman and abolitionist who used his fortune to fund the Allegheny Institute, a school for African
Robert Vann House
7337 Monticello St., Homewood
In 1910, the young lawyer Robert Vann — one of only five black lawyers in Pittsburgh — became legal counsel of a new Hill District newsletter, the Pittsburgh Courier. He soon took control as editor and publisher. Attracting wealthy investors, Vann gradually built the Courier into one of the most influential black newspapers in the country.
In 1911, he bought this house for himself and his new wife, Jesse, after the owner informed Vann he would only sell, not rent, to a black couple. Six years later, when Vann bought the house next door and rented it to another black family, the white neighbors passed out handbills and held meetings protesting the “undesirables.” Within a decade, the street became home to many African Americans. Meanwhile, the luncheons and soirees on Monticello Street became fodder for the Courier’s society pages. Now boarded up, the house is visibly damaged.
A relentless human rights campaigner throughout her life, Daisy Lampkin was a newly married housewife in 1912 when she held her first women’s suffrage meeting in her home. The next year, she became an early investor in the Pittsburgh Courier, where she would eventually become vice president. An equally persuasive speaker in a living room, on a street corner or at a committee meeting, Lampkin quickly took on several leadership roles. In 1924, she was the lone woman in a delegation of prominent black citizens who met with President Calvin Coolidge in the White House to protest the treatment of black soldiers blamed for a riot.
As national field secretary of the NAACP from 1930 to 1947, Lampkin crisscrossed the country attending branch meetings, lobbying for anti-lynching laws and selling war bonds. She stayed active on the board of directors long afterward and suffered a stroke in 1964 at an NAACP event, dying at her home here the following year.
National Negro Opera Company House
7101 Apple St., Homewood
The only African American in her New England Conservatory of Music 1925 graduating class, Mary Cardwell Dawson found her dreams of becoming an opera singer thwarted by racism. She became a music teacher and promoter instead, assembling a black choir that performed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The following year she held auditions and rehearsals in this imposing Queen Anne house, which Hill District club owner William “Woogie” Harris owned and which frequently housed traveling black singers, musicians and athletes, who were unwelcome in city hotels.
Based here, Dawson’s National Negro Opera Company debuted with “Aida,” performed at the Syria Mosque in Oakland in 1941. The company expanded to Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago and Cleveland and was the first black company to perform at the Met. It disbanded shortly after Dawson’s death in 1962. The house has decayed precipitously; though the property is recognized with a state historical marker, it has been condemned since 2008.
HOW TO HELP
August Wilson House
New Granada Square
African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund
- African American Historic Sites Survey of Allegheny County (1994, Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission)
- A Legacy in Bricks and Mortar: African American Landmarks in Allegheny County (1995, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation)