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August Wilson House Anticipates 2019 Grand Opening For Museum And Art Center

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
The August Wilson House is on the National Register of Historic Places.

August Wilson's plays have sold out theaters across the world, earned Pulitzer Prizes and Tony Awards, and most recently transitioned to the silver screen with the Oscar-nominated "Fences."

But Wilson's own story began in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, in a two-room apartment he shared with his mother and siblings above a bodega called Bella's Market until he was 13 years old. 

The humble home, a 19th Century brick house cobbled against a 20th Century structure, served as inspiration for the backdrops of Wilson's plays, in which characters spanning ten decades grew together and apart on stoops and at kitchen tables.

Credit Adelina Lancianese / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Paul Ellis, nephew of August Wilson and executive director of the August Wilson House, speaks in the backyard of the home about updates on its refurbishment.

Since Wilson's death in 2005, the house has been under construction. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. Wilson's nephew Paul Ellis is the executive director of the August Wilson House, intent on transforming it into a tribute to the playwright's life and legacy.

"Now we're at a crossroads. We have grown and taken on a new significance in the community. And we have to make leadership decisions about our identity, the role of civil rights, [and] its intersection with the arts," Ellis said. "The August Wilson House has a golden opportunity to change lives and lead the effort to restore the Hill District to the unique epicenter of culture that it once enjoyed."

Ellis' effort now stretches across the city, in much the same way that his uncle's prose still works itself into Pittsburgh's deep-rooted African-American community. The August Wilson House's board of directors includes professors, architects and artists.

Together, they're hoping to outfit the three-story building with galleries, studios, and historical exhibits. They will refurbish the two rooms that Wilson shared with his family, mining family photos and oral histories to replicate original wallpapers, dishes, and tables.

"We are halfway through the design process so we've developed a framework for the preservation of the house. We've spent a great deal of time in the last decade stabilizing the house," said architect and chairman of the board Rob Pfaffmann. "The interiors are all original. And if you've had the chance to see pictures of the kitchen, you know that is a really spiritual place." 

There will also be a backyard amphitheater, a more permanent version of the makeshift risers that have been utilized to perform Wilson's plays there since 2006. And a terrace on the top floor will overlook the city skyline. 

Increased funding, Ellis says, has allowed the board to hire professional event planners, media consultants and contractors. 

The group debuted these plans on Friday at a community update attended by around 70 people.

"This isn't brick and mortar. This is blood and bone. The work of August Wilson symbolizes a humanity that cannot be forgotten and cannot be lost," said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

Credit Adelina Lancianese / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Floorplans for the design show gallery space, an exhibit hall, and a recreation of the family's kitchen and living room.

"I feel like I'm standing on hollowed ground," said Wilson's widow Costanza Romero Wilson. "Hopefully the people who come here to make a pilgrimage to this house will have ideas that will be preserved, have art that will be cherished, have stories of their own to tell and have a platform in which to create, something that August fought very hard in his own life to do." 

Ken Gormley, president of Duquesne University, also detailed plans for the August Wilson House Fellowship, which will grant a cohort of artists-of-color the opportunity to create and study art in conjunction with the university and the House. The fellowship begins this fall.

In addition, board members presented an award to the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, one of 15 theaters in the country to have hosted performances of Wilson's entire 10-play cycle. 

The gathering is part of a weekend celebration of what would have been Wilson's 73rd birthday on April 27.

A performance of his play King Hedley II on Friday night in the August Wilson House backyard has been postponed due to weather. The House will host a block party for the Hill District community on Saturday, April 28 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The party will include 70 vendors, live performances, a kid zone and a monologue contest. 

Ellis estimates that the August Wilson House will have its grand opening in September 2019, with an official groundbreaking later this year.

Adelina Lancianese is the assistant producer for the NPR Story Lab, a creative studio that fosters newsroom experimentation and incubates new podcasts. At the Story Lab, Lancianese works primarily on investigative, long-form projects, and also helps organize the annual Story Lab Workshop for the development of new independent and Member station podcasts.
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