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Arts, Sports & Culture

Foundation Gift To Aid Pittsburgh's Endangered Historic Black Opera House

Photo by Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
In a photo taken in September, the National Negro Opera Company house sits on an overgrown lot in Homewood.

One of Pittsburgh’s most endangered historical landmarks received a big boost toward preservation on Monday.

Courtesy of Jonnet Solomon
Jonnet Solomon is owner of the National Negro Opera Company house.

The Richard King Mellon Foundation announced it was awarding $500,000 to efforts to restore the National Negro Opera Company House, in Homewood. In the early 1940s, founder Mary Cardwell Dawson housed her pioneering troupe there. The building later became a noted boarding house for visiting Black celebrities, from singer Lena Horne to heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis.

But the state historical marker out front notwithstanding, the house has been vacant for more than 50 years, and has grown dilapidated. In September, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of the country's 11 most endangered historic places. But until now, owner Jonnet Solomon had struggled to raise funds to renovate it.

Solomon called the R.K. Mellon Foundation gift “the spark that the project needed to see success.”

“It’ll hopefully get other people excited and confident in funding the project,” she said.

Photo by Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
A state historical plaque marks the site.

Solomon plans to resurrect the building as a museum and arts center. R.K. Mellon Foundation director Sam Reiman said those plans were a key to securing the foundation’s backing.

“We want to make sure that these properties that are so important to the Black community but also to the entire nation not only remain intact, but also have a chance to come back to life in the form of active programming, a place for the community to convene, and for that history to be shared,” he said.

Solomon has begun seeking to secure 501 (c) 3 status for the project. In the meantime, Pittsburgh Opera will serve as its fiscal sponsor.

Solomon said work to stabilize the building will begin as soon as possible.

“I’m calling my architect today!” she said, laughing.

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