Nationwide Negro Opera Firm House in Homewood Receives $ 500,000 for Artwork + Leisure Restoration | Pittsburgh
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The home of the National Negro Opera Company in Homewood in 2010
A major Pittsburgh-based nonprofit is helping restore the home of the National Negro Opera Company in Homewood, an important piece of the city’s black history that has been vacant for over 50 years.
On April 12, the Richard King Mellon Foundation announced a $ 500,000 grant to save the landmark, a once stately mansion about to collapse. A press release said the 7,000-square-foot property first gained national importance in the 1940s when opera singer Mary Cardwell Dawson rented rooms there for the National Negro Opera Company. It was home to the National Negro Opera Company – the country’s first permanent African American opera company – before the company disbanded in the 1960s. The house has remained largely empty since then.
Foundation director Sam Reiman says that his time at the National Negro Opera Company House hosted famous black musicians like Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and Duke Ellington, as well as athletes like heavyweight champion Joe Louis and Pittsburgh Pirates player Roberto Clemente . Reiman adds that it was a safe place at a time when segregated hotels, venues, and other venues would not welcome or serve black patrons or performers.
“This property was once the center of Pittsburgh’s black cultural life and a national artistic destination,” Reiman said in a press release.
The property is showing signs of severe neglect, however, so in September 2020 the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of the most vulnerable historic locations in the country. In a statement from that time, the Trust said the house was “now empty and badly deteriorated, but local lawyers are working with partners in the community to create a plan to stabilize it and identify potential new uses that would enhance the building’s legacy to honor.”
Those proponents include Jonnet Solomon, a local accountant who bought the property in 2000 for $ 18,000. Since then, she and others – including the late Miriam White, who helped Solomon purchase the house – have worked to raise funds to convert it into a self-run museum and venue with “powerful program for today’s disadvantaged young artists.”
“This has been 20 years of life-changing love work,” says Solomon. “And I am now more hopeful than ever that we can preserve this historic house and make it an artistic center for the community again. This gift is the catalyst that will inspire others to do the same. ”
Christopher Hahn, general manager of Pittsburgh Opera, says his company is also a “key contributor to the development of the artistic program that will be housed in the renovated facility to celebrate our region’s rich operatic history and fulfill Mary Cardwell Dawson’s dream Opportunities for children in Pittsburgh hardest hit by racial inequalities in education and the arts. ”
A press release said it would take more than $ 2 million to achieve Solomon’s vision for space. In addition to the $ 500,000 gift from the RK Mellon Foundation, the project has also received some attention from the Denyce Graves Foundation, launched by Grammy and Emmy award-winning mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves to support projects such as the National Negro Opera Company support.
Reiman hopes his foundation’s contribution will pay more attention to the project and its little-known role in the city’s rich history.
“The Foundation hopes that their first gift will inspire other community leaders in Pittsburgh – and leaders across the country – to join Jonnet in this noble quest,” said Reiman. “Together we can save a milestone before it’s too late. Today we can help young artists to find a welcoming place again. And we can support Homewood’s ongoing efforts to return to its rightful place as a cultural and community center. ”