Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Groundbreaking on Pittsburgh's National Negro Opera House arrives after 22 years of persistence

The overture announcing the rebirth of Pittsburgh’s National Negro Opera House is over. With Tuesday’s groundbreaking, restoration has formally begun on the Homewood landmark that played an important role in the nation’s musical history.

Jonnet Solomon, the local businesswoman who bought the building in 2000, hosted the event on Apple Street, where the dilapidated Victorian building, which now has more than $2 million dedicated to its revival, sits.

“I’ve been trying to do this for over 22 years, and we’re finally here today to make it a reality,” said Solomon.

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

Other speakers at the open-air event included Sam Reiman, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, which has given $500,000 to the effort; Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund; and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.

There were also living links to the storied building’s history.

These included a short vocal performance by Candace Burgess, a classically trained soprano and recent graduate of Duquesne University. She said her vocal teacher, Anqwenique Wingfield was taught by another singer whose own teacher had studied inside the historic structure. “It’s more than a house to me. It’s my history,” said Burgess.

And jazz musician and educator Nelson Harrison presented Solomon with a photo he shot in 1988 of his friend, jazz great Ahmad Jamal, standing in front of the building. It was where Jamal took his first piano lessons at age 7.

The building earned its state historical marker by housing the first opera troupe in the U.S. to be run by a Black woman: Mary Cardwell Dawson, a pioneering educator and classically trained musician who began giving lessons there in the late 1930s. Dawson, who grew up in Homestead, founded the National Negro Opera Company there, in 1941, because of the dearth of opportunities for Black opera singers.

The company remained in Pittsburgh for only about a year. After Dawson and her husband relocated to Washington, D.C., it gained prominence, staging shows around the country and eventually working with some 1,800 individual performers, according to Karen Bryan, a University of South Florida professor who studies African-American opera and is writing a biography of Dawson.

The Apple Street house itself had a decades-long second life as Mystery Manor, a social hub and boarding house for visiting Black celebrities. At a time when racism made accommodations for even famous Black people limited, individuals who lodged there included jazz singer Lena Horne, heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis, bandleader Cab Calloway and Pirates great Roberto Clemente.

But by the time Solomon and a partner bought the building for $18,000, it had been vacant and neglected for decades. For most of that time, Solomon struggled to fund her plan to restore it as a museum and cultural and education center. But over the past two years, it has received about $2 million in donations —virtually all of it since September 2020, whenthe National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of the nation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. (The Trust is the parent organization of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.)

Donations for restoration and future programming at the building have also included $500,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, $550,000 from the Allegheny Foundation and $250,000 from the Burke Family Foundation. Early this year, the project even received $25,000 from former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush.

The work will be performed by Russell General Contracting. Solomon said the first phase involves stabilizing the building, which will take three months. Meanwhile, fundraising will continue. Solomon said another $1 million is needed to complete the project.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: