Cafe planned for Hill District in August Wilson's old home


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Leereta Payne was walking through her Hill District neighborhood a few years ago when she noticed a man standing on the corner of Bedford and Roberts avenues looking slightly bewildered.

The man, who had traveled from Japan for a conference Downtown, stopped her and asked: Which of these buildings is August Wilson's boyhood home?

His confusion was understandable. The building at 1727 Bedford Ave. has been boarded up for nearly a decade, and its brick exterior shows worrisome gaps.

Today, there's a sign outside noting the home's designation as a historic site, but to casual passers-by, little else has changed. Weeds have all but taken over a vacant lot next door.

Ms. Payne, however, looks at the structure and sees a cafe that serves coffee and desserts, a place for a community that she says could use a gathering place. If all goes according to plan, the Legacy Cafe will open late next summer, with that vacant lot converted to a stage area for artists and poets.

"This cafe will be a much needed business in our neighborhood because currently there are no coffee shops in the Hill District," said Ms. Payne, who now runs a catering business by the same name. "There's a lot of foot traffic here, a lot of college students."

When Legacy Cafe opens, it will be as much an homage to the bygone days of a bustling and vibrant Hill District as a tribute to the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. The decor will include memorabilia from Eddie's Restaurant, now gone but at one time an institution at the intersection of Wylie and Kirkpatrick as well as a frequent hangout for Mr. Wilson. Eddie's even got a mention in Mr. Wilson's play, "The Piano Lesson."

Customers at the Legacy Cafe, Ms. Payne said, will be able to see pictures, menus, placemats and receipts from Eddie's, where a teen-aged Ms. Payne worked as a server in the 1970s.

"I really enjoyed growing up in that era," she said, recalling Saturdays when her mother would buy groceries or take her shopping.

The idea for the cafe came from a chance meeting a few years ago in an elevator at Hope One Square on Centre Avenue with family friend Paul Ellis, Mr. Wilson's nephew.

"I told him I was looking for a space for a cafe, and he said, 'Let's talk.' We've been talking and planning ever since."

Mr. Ellis is executive director of the nonprofit Daisy Wilson Artist Community to which he donated 1727 Bedford Ave. and the adjacent building in 2011. The artist community is named after Mr. Wilson's mother.

Mr. Ellis, an attorney, said the coffee house plan appealed to him for two reasons: His uncle enjoyed sitting in coffee houses with friends. "It was just a place where he felt comfortable. It was a combination of that and the absence of anything like it in the Hill District."

Ms. Payne said that despite the boarded up windows and cracked brick work, the interior "is not really in bad shape at all. The walls are painted and it's dust-free."

The storefront used to house a grocery store, Bella's Market -- the Wilson family lived in the back portion of the building -- and so key equipment is already in place for a cafe. That includes a five-door freezer, three utility sinks and two bathrooms. Ms. Payne figures the seating areas will sit 60.

She still expects to sink $50,000 to $60,000 of her own money in the enterprise, and she's had some help with a small loan and with guidance from mentors at Duquesne University and the Community College of Allegheny County.

"I'm in the driver's seat, but they provided me the tools to make this happen," she said. She will be renting the space, but says she is also getting financial and other support from the Daisy Wilson Artist Community. "They are invested in making the cafe an asset to the community." She also plans a personal legacy for the cafe going forward -- one of her hires will be granddaughter Rajah Eberhardt, 18, who is studying at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

"Her assignment is to come up with a signature sandwich and dessert," Ms. Payne said.

Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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