August Wilson's childhood home is reborn as a Hill District arts center
When playwright August Wilson was born in 1945, his family lived in a two-room apartment on the second floor of a red-brick building on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District.
While the sidewalk in front afforded a clear view of the skyscrapers of Downtown Pittsburgh, the apartment was tight quarters. For years, Wilson shared the little kitchen and parlor with his mother, Daisy Wilson, and his five siblings.
Still, it was there that Daisy taught young Frederick August Kittel Jr., as he was named at birth, to read. And it was on the streets of the larger Hill District that Wilson began to develop his skills as an observer and thinker whose body of work about Black life in the 20th century would earn international acclaim, including Pulitzer Prizes for “The Piano Lesson” and “Fences.” Nine of the 10 plays of his famous Century Cycle, chronicling Black life in the 20th century, would be set on those same streets.
The Wilson family left the building at 1727 Bedford in the late 1950s; years later, it fell into disuse and disrepair. But this week, a 17-year project to revive the structure as a community arts center concludes with the grand opening of the August Wilson House.
A star-studded grand opening Saturday, Aug. 13, is a VIP fundraiser featuring such supporters of the project as Denzel Washington and Constanza Romero, Wilson’s widow. (It's the year's second major Wilson-related grand opening, after April's debut of the interactive exhibit "August Wilson: The Writer's Landscape," at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.)
In September, the August Wilson House, which is already running programs off-site, will begin on-site operations, including workshops, exhibits and participatory readings of Wilson’s plays. All programming will be free.
In the interim, visitors can enjoy a production of Wilson’s play “Jitney” staged by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. right in the backyard of the playwright’s childhood home.
That is just how Wilson would want it, said Denise Turner, the acting chief executive of the August Wilson House. She referred to a conversation between the playwright, shortly before his death, and his nephew, attorney Paul Ellis, who had taken control of what was then an abandoned and dilapidated 19th-century structure.
Wilson “was very clear he did not want this to be a museum,” said Turner. “He wanted this to be a useful space. That’s why it will be an art center.”
Still, the site will pay tribute to Wilson’s childhood, starting with “Freddie’s Footsteps.” It’s a set of kid-sized footprints carved into the pavers leading off the sidewalk, down what was once the narrow breezeway between 1727 Bedford and a now-vanished adjacent building, tracing the path Wilson walked home as a boy.
The August Wilson House, of course, was never in the control of Wilson’s family until Ellis formed the Daisy Wilson Artist Community in 2005, around the time of Wilson’s death. And it was actually built as multiple structures. The oldest part, says project architect Rob Pfaffman, dates to the 1840s, when that stretch of the Hill was rural. That’s the building the young Wilson, who changed his name as an adult, would occupy with his family a century later.
The structure fronting on Bedford came later, in the 1890s. In Wilson’s childhood, it was home to Bella’s Market, a neighborhood grocery run by a Jewish couple, Lou and Bella Siger. The upstairs rooms were occupied by other renters. Sometime in Wilson’s childhood, the family was able to occupy an additional two rooms on the third floor before they all moved to Hazelwood after Daisy Wilson married.
The building was in bad shape when Paul Ellis began the project. It was named a state historical site in 2007. Major fundraising began several years ago, led by such celebrated Wilson admirers as Washington and his wife, Pauletta; Oprah Winfrey; Tyler Perry; Samuel and LaTanya Jackson; Laurence Fishburne; Shonda Rhimes; and Pittsburgh-born filmmaker Antoine Fuqua.
Denzel Washington's commitment to Wilson's legacy includes his efforts to adapt his plays into feature films, so far including "Fences" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," both filmed in Pittsburgh.
The initial fundraising goal of $5 million was reached in 2018. Turner said the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Hillman Foundation have helped the Wilson House make its final capital goal of $8 million. Turner said the added cost was largely due to the expense of historic preservation and pandemic-related price increases.
The restoration required a complete gutting of the building and included a gleaming, glass-fronted modern addition that houses the elevators and accessible bathrooms, as well as gallery space. Displays throughout will honor the family’s history, including a reconstructed circa-1950 kitchen, complete with a white enameled sink, stove and icebox. Photos by that other great chronicler of the Hill, Charles “Teenie” Harris, will be featured prominently, Turner said.
However, as Wilson desired, most of the 6,000-square-foot facility’s space will be dedicated to art, with studios, galleries, and meeting rooms. The August Wilson House has already begun programs off-site, hosting several artist residencies and teaming on other initiatives with partners in the Hill like the Blakey Program Center, the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center, the Energy Innovation Center, and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Hill District branch. Programs include the neighborhood oral-history project Your Story Matters and reading roundtables in which participants can take turns performing roles in Wilson’s plays. Through the Art for August program, artists were paid $1,000 each to create a work inspired by Wilson’s plays.
Starting in September, the Wilson House will begin bringing those programs on site. Among the first scheduled events is a Sept. 24 roundtable reading of “The Piano Lesson.”