August Wilson's residence could be nationally recognized

Writer's childhood home considered for historic designation


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Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson's childhood home is headed for possible inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

An application for that designation has been sent to the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, whose review board could decide as soon as April.

The 1840s residence is directly behind and adjacent to an 1890s storefront addition at 1727 Bedford Ave. in the Hill District, which also is included in the application prepared by Jeff Slack of Pfaffmann and Associates. The architectural firm also completed a study on the feasibility of reusing the building and an adjacent building -- also a storefront and upstairs residence -- as the Daisy Wilson Artist Community.

Daisy, the playwright's mother, raised her children behind what was then Bella's Market until August was 13 years old.

The Daisy Wilson Artist Community became a non-profit in 2010. Paul Ellis, August Wilson's nephew, is directing its development as a multi-use complex for writers, artists and musicians and for public arts programming.

Kevin Acklin, a member of the Daisy Wilson Artist Community board and executive director of Renew Pittsburgh, said the group has raised $130,000.

On Saturday, he, Mr. Ellis and Mr. Slack gave a public tour of the building and led a session on how to do a house history using the Wilson home as a case study.

The notable difference between earlier tours and Saturday's was that the place was, as Mr. Acklin described it, "bone dry" thanks to a new roof. "The next critical work we have to do is masonry," he said.

An original grant of $30,000 from the Pittsburgh Foundation paid for the feasibility study. Contributions of $40,000 from the Heinz Endowment and $35,000 from McAuley Ministries, as well as individual private donations, "are so motivational," Mr. Ellis said. "They were an endorsement of our vision."

The vision is to give young artists a shared sense of community in the place where August Wilson set off each day to plumb the Hill District for his own creative growth.

Two city-owned vacant lots immediately east of 1727 Bedford figure into the plan for parking and a large events tent.

A $5,000 grant from city Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle will help the group write a business plan for operation of the artist community. That plan will grow from work that was done last year by Evan Stoddard's Community and University Honors class at Duquesne University.

Kathleen Glenister Roberts, director of the University Honors College, asked Mr. Stoddard to take on a partnership with the Daisy Wilson community for a long-term relationship. One of Mr. Stoddard's classes each year is devoted to the project.

In preparing the historic register application to the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission -- whose review is ultimately vetted by the Department of the Interior -- "we had to make clear that this property is the signature property in August Wilson's life and the only one that belongs on the register," Mr. Slack said.

August Wilson's career took him to St. Paul, Minn., where his plays were first produced, and later to Seattle.

Criteria for national register inclusion are either that a building itself is worthy or that the building is worthy in association with an influential person.

August Wilson, who was born in 1945 and died in 2005, explained the significance of the house in 1996 at a national conference of the Theater Communications Group:

"Growing up in my mother's house at 1727 Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I learned the language, the eating habits, the religious beliefs, the notions of common sense, attitudes toward sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the responses to pleasure and pain that my mother had learned from her mother, and which you could trace back to the first African who set foot on the continent."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk. First Published October 1, 2012 4:00 AM


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