August Wilson’s childhood home reborn as 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 offered an unobstructed view of downtown Pittsburgh’s skyscrapers, the apartment was cramped. For years, Wilson shared the small kitchen and living room with her mother, Daisy Wilson, and her five siblings.

Yet it was there that Daisy taught young Frederick August Kittel Jr. to read, as he was named at birth. And it was on the streets of the greater Hill district that Wilson began to develop his skills as an observer and thinker including the body of work on black life in the 20e century would earn international acclaim, including Pulitzer Prizes for “The Piano Lesson” and “Fences”. Nine of the 10 plays in his famous Century Cycle, chronicling black life in the 20e century, would take place in these same streets.

Bill O’Driscoll

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90.5 WESA

“Freddie’s Footsteps” traces the route young August Wilson took to his home decades ago at 1727 Bedford Ave.

The Wilson family left the building at 1727 Bedford in the late 1950s; years later it fell into disrepair and disrepair. But this week, a 17-year project to revive the structure as a community arts center comes to an end with the grand opening of the August Wilson House.

A star-studded grand opening on Saturday, August 13 is a VIP fundraiser featuring project supporters such as Denzel Washington and Constanza Romero, Wilson’s widow. (This is the second Wilson-related grand opening of the year, following the April launch 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 already runs offsite programs, will begin onsite operations, including workshops, exhibits, and participatory readings of Wilson’s plays. All programming will be free.

In the meantime, visitors can catch a production of Wilson’s play “Jitney” staged by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Co. in the backyard of the playwright’s childhood home.

That’s exactly what Wilson would want, said Denise Turner, acting general manager of the August Wilson House. It refers to a conversation between the playwright, shortly before his death, and his nephew, lawyer Paul Ellis, who had taken over what was then an abandoned and dilapidated 19th.estructure of the century.

Wilson “was very clear that he didn’t want it to be a museum,” Turner said. “He wanted it to be a useful space. That’s why it will be an art center.

Still, the site will pay homage to Wilson’s childhood, beginning with “Freddie’s Footsteps.” This is a set of child-sized footprints carved into the cobblestones that run from the sidewalk along what was once the narrow breezeway between 1727 Bedford and an adjacent building today. now missing, retracing the path that Wilson returned home as a boy.

The August Wilson household, of course, was never under Wilson’s family control until Ellis formed the Daisy Wilson Artist Community in 2005, around the time of Wilson’s death. And it was actually built in multiple structures. The oldest part, according to project architect Rob Pfaffman, dates from the 1840s, when this stretch of hill was rural. This is the building that young Wilson, who changed his name as an adult, would occupy with his family a century later.

The structure overlooking Bedford came later, in the 1890s. In Wilson’s childhood, it housed Bella’s Market, a neighborhood grocery store run by a Jewish couple, Lou and Bella Siger. The upstairs bedrooms were occupied by other tenants. During Wilson’s childhood, the family was able to occupy two additional bedrooms on the third floor before moving to Hazelwood after Daisy Wilson’s marriage.

The building was in poor condition when Paul Ellis started the project. It was named a State Historic Site in 2007. A major fundraiser began several years ago, led by famous Wilson admirers such 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, including “Fences” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” both shot in Pittsburgh.

The original fundraising goal of $5 million was met in 2018. Turner said the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Hillman Foundation helped Wilson House reach its final goal of $8 million. Turner said the extra cost was largely due to historic preservation expenses and pandemic-related price increases.

The restoration required a complete gutting of the building and included a modern addition to the gleaming glass facade that houses the elevators and accessible bathrooms, as well as a gallery space. Exhibits will honor the family’s history, including a kitchen rebuilt circa 1950, with a white enamel sink, stove and cooler. Photos of that other top Hill columnist, Charles “Teenie” Harris, will be featured prominently, Turner said.

However, as Wilson intended, 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 offsite programs, hosting several artist residencies and joining other initiatives with Hill partners like the Blakey Program Center, Jeron X. Grayson Community Center, Energy Innovation Center and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Hill District Branch. Programs include the Your Story Matters neighborhood oral history project and reading roundtables in which participants can take turns playing roles in Wilson’s plays. Under the Art for August program, artists were paid $1,000 each to create artwork inspired by Wilson’s pieces.

Beginning in September, Maison Wilson will begin offering these programs onsite. Among the first scheduled events, a round table reading on September 24 of “The piano lesson”.

More information about Maison Wilson here.

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