Ground broken for center of African-American culture

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An artist rendering of the planned August Wilson Cultural Center on Liberty Avenue.
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On Stage Journal: August Wilson at Home in Downtown Pittsburgh

The hard work of turning a muddy vacant lot Downtown into a "sacred space" for the city took another big step yesterday at the symbolic start of construction for the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

After 10 years of planning and fund raising, civic leaders gathered in the triangular lot on Liberty Avenue with ceremonial shovels to perform the ritual groundbreaking for the $36 million performing arts, exhibition and educational center. Actual construction begins next month and the center is supposed to open in early 2008.

The final push to raise money for the facility coincides. The center has raised $27.4 million of the $35.9 million needed for construction, mostly from government and private foundation sources, and is going to the public to find the final $8.5 million.

Some 250 people crowded into a tent at the development site on Liberty at 10th Street -- the former home of Liberty Tavern, the Chez Kimberly strip club and four other old storefronts -- to celebrate the construction start. A few themes were repeated throughout the event: the long effort to build the center since its conception in 1996, its formidable connection with world-famous playwright August Wilson, and its placement along the Cultural District corridor, Downtown.

Many museums and cultural centers celebrating black culture have opened nationwide, following a push that began in the 1950s and 1960s. The National Museum of African-American History and Culture -- a part of the Smithsonian Institution -- is planned for a site adjacent to the Mall in Washington, D.C.

"Your children's children and generations beyond them will thank you for what you've done -- created a sacred space to tell the compelling story of the African Americans in this city and this country," the director of the national museum, Lonnie Bunch, said in a message read at the ceremony.

The exterior of the two-story, 65,000-square-foot center will be marked by a ship-like sail on its east side. Developers plan to pursue certification as an environmentally friendly green building, architect Allison G. Williams said.

The center will contain a cafe, 500-seat theater, 4,000-square-foot exhibition space and additional education spaces. The focus on performing arts is perfect, many remarked, for a facility named after Mr. Wilson. The late Pulitizer Prize-winning playwright was raised in the Hill District, set his 10-play cycle there, and wove African American music, arts and culture into his stories.

The center plans ties with the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts High School and other school groups.

"If schooling and education is ultimately about helping children to understand where they fit in the world and where they come from, there can be no more profound event for students in Pittsburgh but to read and to see and to study the work of August Wilson," Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt said.

The bulk of the money for the center has come from government sources -- including about $10 million alone from the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority in 2003 -- the Heinz Endowments, R.K. Mellon Foundation and the Eden Hall Foundation.

Wilson Center supporters will now try to raise the last $8.5 million for the center through private contributions. Wilson board member Nancy Washington (with husband Wilt) and the Heinz Endowments are separately funding challenge grants to raise money from the African American community. Some $1.3 million has been raised toward a $3 million goal.

The center is sending out 66 fund-raising "ambassadors" to secure the balance. "A lot of work needs to be done to complete this effort but I'm confident that we will be able to do it," said Buchanan Ingersoll CEO Thomas Van Kirk, a co-chair of the center's capital campaign.

Battles raged in the first years of planning for the center over where to place it -- more than 20 sites were proposed, many in the Hill District and Homewood, with the argument that it could help spur development in the struggling and largely black neighborhoods.

Wilson Center President Neil Barclay said the final location, in the Cultural District close to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, is the right spot for everyone.

"It's a dream people have had for years here in Pittsburgh to really capture the significance of African Americans in the region in a place right in the center of town -- that people from now on, when they come to Pittsburgh [and see the Wilson Center], they're going to know something important happened."

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Kiyanna Montgomery, right, and her fellow students from the Helen S. Faison Arts Academy anxiously await a chance to shovel dirt at yesterday's Downtown groundbreaking ceremony for the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.
Click photo for larger image.

Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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