Clemente Museum brightens Lower Lawrenceville outlook

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The Roberto Clemente Museum opened last week with little fanfare -- a couple of open-house parties and a $30,000 check from Councilman Len Bodack.

But it was an auspicious occasion for Duane Rieder, whose building of the museum has been a labor of love for 11 years. The museum is also being hailed as a catalyst for investments coming to Lower Lawrenceville's western gateway, which has been neglected in the upswing of the larger neighborhood's fortunes.

At 3339 Penn Ave., near the junction with Butler Street, the former Enginehouse No. 25 now makes Doughboy Square a destination, albeit by appointment only, for now.

Mr. Rieder bought the turn-of-the-century, 4,400-square-foot stone building in 1996 and established his commercial photography studio there. Photography is his job, but his passion has been building a jaw-dropping collection of all things Clemente, for which he is seeking nonprofit status and another $270,000 to support the museum as a stand-alone destination, with his studio to move elsewhere.

Annual taxes on the building are $12,000, he said.

For those who grew up idolizing the Pirates' superstar, a visit there becomes a slow-motion rush, a bittersweet meltdown and a reverie. The collection of thousands of items includes professional sports photography, Clemente family snapshots, contracts, receipts for furniture, telegrams, letters, a union card, a wedding invitation, a pair of 1971 cleats, old uniforms, gloves, balls, bats, seats from Forbes Field and a replica of the old scoreboard.

It all started with a calendar Mr. Rieder took part in creating for the 1994 All-Star Game at Three Rivers Stadium, and it escalated as he came to know the Clemente family.

Mr. Clemente was killed en route to Nicaragua with earthquake relief supplies when the small plane he had chartered went down off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico on New Years Eve 1972. His eldest son, Roberto Jr. was 7 at the time. Now 41, he moved to Pittsburgh last fall and lives Downtown.

The calendar project that brought Mr. Rieder and Mr. Clemente's widow, Vera, together was opportune in that she had few pictures of her husband, except one in which he appears with team members and Mrs. Clemente at the White House in 1973 to receive a presidential medal.

Family photos of that event were in bad condition, Mr. Clemente said. "Mom asked Duane about the possibility of saving them, and he was able to get [negatives] from the White House."

Describing Mr. Rieder as "my brother from another mother," Mr. Clemente said he had helped him with the wiring in the engine house a decade ago but had no idea what the electricity would be illuminating.

"What he has done, I truly never thought of doing," Mr. Clemente said. "I am flattered and honored to know him, and I know that his heart is in that place, and my heart is also there.

"I meet people every day and hear stories and accolades of my father, but Duane has taken it to the next level. He has gone out of his way to do good, which was the spirit of my father."

From one visit to Puerto Rico, Mr. Rieder returned with the Clemente family's entire photo collection and set about saving it and making copies for his collection.

Mr. Rieder said that when he was a kid growing up playing ball with friends in Du Bois, Clearfield County, "I always loved him," but when all the other kids would pick Clemente to be, he would be center fielder Matty Alou "because we couldn't all be Clemente," he said, grinning.

"How can you not fall in love with the guy?" he said. "The way he played, the way he looked, the kind of person he was."

One of his goals is to achieve school field-trip status for the museum, to bring Mr. Clemente to another generation of children and to generate some income for the upkeep of the building.

Tony Ceoffe, executive director of Lawrenceville United, said the condition of Lower Lawrenceville has been "a shame" as the entrance to the neighborhood, but for years, the nuisance bar, JK's Place, held sway. It closed about a year ago.

Now, Desmone & Associates, a firm of architects in Doughboy Square at 34th Street, is planning an expansion that could include retail.

Luke Desmone, CEO and owner, said the expansion could be about 40,000 square feet.

"We'll be looking for additional tenants, maybe street-level retail," he said. "Our project would include indoor parking. ... I'd say it will take place within a year."

More improvements include a planned repositioning of traffic lights, said Mr. Bodack, who described his check as "neighborhood needs community reinvestment money." The museum "is a great way to use the money because it's a great community resource."

For Mr. Rieder, the first funds from his councilman are the beginning of a long process. At 45, he knows something about long processes, his own and those of his hero.

For the 19-year-old who would one day become a Pirates legend, that wisdom may have begun with the letter in 1956 from Branch Rickey Jr., then vice president of the Pittsburgh Pirates, telling him that his expectation of $10,000 for the next year, after one season batting .255, was "an absurdity."

Visits to the Roberto Clemente Museum can be arranged by calling Mr. Rieder at 412-621-1268.

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette photos
Commercial photographer Duane Rieder, with the work "Clemente Angel Wings," has turned his studio space in the former Engine House 25 in Lawrenceville into the Roberto Clemente Museum.
Click photo for larger image.
Slideshow: Roberto Clemente Museum

The bat has dents from his children hitting baseballs with it. It is displayed in a case surrounded by baseballs painted to resemble a U.S. flag.
Click photo for larger image.A bust of the former Pirates great and its plaster proof at the Clemente Museum.
Click photo for larger image.

Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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