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Pittsburgh's historic National Negro Opera House is in key funding phase

A woman stands in a room being built with wooden beams.
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
Jonnet Solomon, head of the nonprofit National Opera House, stands in the third floor of the historic building in Homewood – where Mary Cardwell Dawson gave music lessons.

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Two years ago, Jonnet Solomon hosted the ceremonial groundbreaking to restore the badly dilapidated Homewood building that was the first home of the National Negro Opera Company, a pioneering troupe founded by Black musician, educator and impresario Mary Cardwell Dawson.

The project — decades in the making — has since come a long way. At the time of that groundbreaking, the turreted Queen Anne-style house, built in 1894, was overgrown with greenery, and missing half its floors and most of its roof. Solomon, executive director of the nonprofit National Opera House, says the only way to enter back then was by crawling through a window.

Once, she found a family of turkey vultures nesting on the third floor.

“They were like, ‘Can I help you?’” she recalls.

Today, the birds are gone. The overgrowth has been cleared away, save for the huge maple tree out front. The building has been stabilized, with wall anchors in the stone foundation. And while the interior has been stripped down to studs, rafters and framing, at least now there’s a roof (if still sans shingles) and flooring on all three stories.

The project, however, is far from complete.

“We are just stabilized,” Solomon told me after an informal tour of the property this week. “But we need funding and donations to get to the finish line.”

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The news might surprise those who recall that May 2022 groundbreaking on Apple Street, which capped a dazzling 18 months for the project. In September 2020 — two decades after Solomon and a partner first purchased the abandoned and all-but-forgotten structure — the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of the country’s 11 most endangered historic places.

Just months later, the Pittsburgh-based Richard King Mellon Foundation pledged $500,000 toward the project. More big donations followed, including $500,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and $550,000 from the Allegheny Foundation.

In short, by May 2022, the National Opera House had garnered about $3 million in funding. It was enough to “deconstruct” the interior — salvaging features like interior wooden trim and doors — and make the building safe to enter.

In fact, $3 million had been Solomon’s initial estimate of what it would cost to preserve the building and reopen it as a museum and cultural center. But she’d made that original estimate 24 years ago. And then came unexpected cost overruns for things like asbestos removal, which Solomon says was originally estimated at $1,200 but ultimately cost a whopping $144,000.

Today, Solomon estimates, completing the project will require another $7 million. That includes turning the third floor (home to Dawson’s school and the opera company) into a performance space; the second floor (whose five rooms once housed Black Pirates and Steelers) into offices for small arts groups; and the first floor into a museum.

Raising $7 million is a big lift. But Solomon has one advantage: all the lifting she’s already done to teach people what the Opera House is and raise its profile.

When she bought the building, scarcely anyone knew Dawson’s name, or the legacy of her troupe, which she’d founded in Pittsburgh, in 1941, after years spent giving music lessons at the Apple Street house through her Mary Cardwell School of Music. The house, then owned by fabled Black numbers mogul Woogie Harris, had a notable second life as Mystery Manor, a boarding house for Black athletes and entertainers and a social hall for parties that attracted the likes of vocalist Lena Horne, jazz great Cab Calloway and boxing champ Joe Louis.

“We’ve done so much to elevate the history, it’s unbelievable,” says Solomon. In 2021, for instance, the Glimmerglass Festival premiered Sandra Seaton’s play with music “The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson,” which has since had several productions around the country, including its Pittsburgh premiere this year.

“That wasn’t happening 20 years ago,” Solomon says.

Moreover, the Charlotte Museum of History is currently hosting an exhibit on Dawson.

More informally, Solomon has led curious visitors from as far afield as Florida on tours of the house. And based on her monitoring of mentions on social media, she estimates that up to 50 people a week deliberately visit the building.

“The work of telling the story, I feel, is finished,” she says.

But even though Solomon no longer has to explain to potential supporters who Cardwell Dawson is, the work of salvaging the building is less than halfway done. More about the project is here.

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: