Scaffolding covers much of the three-story brick house on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District. Three men – an apprentice carpenter and two bricklayer apprentices – work on restoring the crumbling front façade, the roofing and the brickwork.
But this isn’t your average restoration – the navy blue sign standing in front of the house reveals that it is the childhood home of famous Pittsburgh-born playwright August Wilson – and all three of the men working on it have either spent time on the streets or in jail.
“It’s a restoration story,” Stephen Shelton, executive director of the Technical Institute of Pittsburgh, said. “Not only are they restoring the greatest African American playwright’s house, but these young African American guys are restoring their lives at the same time by using their talents in their job to do the right thing.”
Shelton’s Technical Institute of Pittsburgh is a non-profit that has trained 75 at-risk workers with masonry and general labor skills within the last five years – 26 this year alone.
Shelton said these workers have all moved on to work full-time jobs earning no less than $12 an hour.
The three working on Wilson’s home are Chris Wilson, who was out of work and on the streets before enrolling at the Institute; Scott Snyder, who served nearly 10 years in prison on gun charges and Duane Green, who served time on drug charges.
They are stabilizing Wilson’s home – replacing the wooden beams and re-framing the front, leveling the roof and laying specially-ordered bricks – but more funds are needed in order to perform a full restoration.
However, Shelton said projects like this give their workers a chance to do something they were unable to do before – provide for their families.
“For some of us it’s very simple to say that because we’ve never been in the situations that these guys are in,” Shelton said. “But to see and hear them talk about just how cool it is to have a full-time job, have a paycheck and go home to their kids and their girlfriends and their wives and be able to take care of things the way that they’ve always wanted to take care of them, it’s just very gratifying.”
According to Shelton, work on the stabilization portion should wrap up next week, and he said plans are in motion to eventually transform the first floor into a café.
He said the workers were inspired after hearing the story of the late August Wilson – how he grew up in the Hill District and went on to receive a slew of awards for his plays, including two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and a Tony Award.
“These guys really started looking at their jobs differently,” Shelton said. “They’re really making a substantial impact not only on a major building and a major house and project in a community, but it really gives them a great sense of pride in what they’re doing.”
And they’re not the only ones.
“I’m proud of these three guys,” Shelton said.