The Next Page: An ambitious renovation of August Wilson’s boyhood home will be good for Pittsburgh and the arts
April 24, 2016 12:00 AM
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photo by Bill Wade.
Playwright August Wilson in 1999 next to 1727 Bedford Ave. in the Hill District. At the right rear are steps leading to the two rooms (later four) in which his mother raised August and his siblings.
Daisy Wilson, the playwright's mother.
A closer view of the dilapidated entrance to the Wilson-Kittel apartment.
Paul Ellis, August Wilson’s nephew and executive director of the August Wilson House board, at 1727 Bedford Ave., next to the landmark plaque and in front of the fresh brick and steel beam installed in 2014.
By Christopher Rawson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For years, the house at 1727 Bedford Ave. in the Hill District has sat as a rebuke to Pittsburgh — derelict, crumbling, the windows rotting. Visiting theater artists and other pilgrims have been shocked at Pittsburgh’s seeming indifference to the birthplace and childhood home of a great American.
He was born Freddy Kittel, but we know him as August Wilson, the name he gave himself at age 20 — August from his white father, Frederick August Kittel, and Wilson from his black mother, Daisy Wilson. Born in 1945, he died young in 2005 as one of the great artists in the Pittsburgh pantheon. But he is more deeply a Pittsburgher than Andy Warhol or Gene Kelly, for example, with Pittsburgh’s gritty streets shaping his own life, and its people, places and conflicts also filling his art.
So it is time to do something about the house where he spent his first 13 years, launching him on the journey that led to Broadway, Pulitzer Prizes and the other markers of great success. Finally, we are restoring the August Wilson House.
I say “we” because I’m on the board of the Daisy Wilson Artist Community, named for August’s beloved mother. We are the not-for-profit that is at last rebuilding the August Wilson House in a way we are sure he would welcome.
This is especially the right time because the Denzel Washington and Viola Davis film of August’s “Fences” is shooting in the Hill right now, with all the other plays to follow on HBO.
The plays and the Hill
First, the plays: August’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle — also known as the American Century Cycle – is a dramatic achievement that puts him among the five greatest American playwrights: Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, and you pick the fifth. Nine of the ten plays are set in the Hill – only “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the first to reach Broadway, is not, because, he told me with typical Pittsburgh deprecation, “I’m from Pittsburgh, so I thought I needed a more important city.” So he set “Ma Rainey” in a recording studio in Chicago, with hardly a reference to the city outside.
It is the Hill that provides the plays’ resonant cultural geography. That’s especially true of “Seven Guitars” (set in 1948, in the backyard of his birthplace); “Fences” (covering the period from 1957 to 1965, in Troy Maxson’s backyard); “Two Trains Running” (1969, in a diner); and “Jitney” (1977, in a jitney cab station), all taking place in the years August lived in the Hill. Names of Hill people, places, memories and events are thickest in these four, but they are frequent even in the plays dominated by recent immigrants from the South.
The third play set in a backyard is “King Hedley II” (1985). Three plays are set in boarding houses or homes: “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (1911), “The Piano Lesson” (1936) and “Gem of the Ocean” (1904, set at 1839 Wylie Ave). The other four are set in businesses: “Radio Golf” (1997, in a redevelopment office), “Two Trains,” “Jitney” and “Ma Rainey.”
Although the Hill landscape of the Pittsburgh Cycle is real, most of the homes, backyards and businesses, whatever their historic parallels, are fictional. The Pittsburgh Cycle is not a documentary but fiction set in a real place. In the early to mid-20th century, the Hill was a city-within-a-city of 55,000, famous for the Pittsburgh Courier, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and many jazz greats. Now it is famous again in the plays of August Wilson.
August was a passionate reader who got his library card at age 5. He was a smart but indifferent student, ill-served by racist schools, both public and parochial. Dropping out in the ninth grade, he educated himself and later paid tribute to Andrew Carnegie for the libraries that made that possible; the Carnegie Library reciprocated with an honorary high school diploma.
At age 20, he said, “I left the library and I left my mother's house and went out into the community of the Hill District. ... I went out on the street corners, the bars and restaurants and barbershops to learn how to be a man.”
His father had died, but the Hill provided many fathers, as Pittsburgh Public Theater audiences could see last year in his autobiographical 11th play, “How I Learned What I Learned.” His ultimate fathers were both the Hill community that nurtured him and the larger Pittsburgh that, by making life difficult, stimulated and defined him.
He left the Hill in 1978 for St. Paul, Minn., and in 1990, moved to Seattle. It was in those cooler, Northern cities, he later explained, that he could more clearly hear the voices from the Hill. Moving changed Pittsburgh from a daily adversary to a rich resource.
He came back to Pittsburgh often, sometimes delivering speeches in which he decried Pittsburgh racism, linking it to similar patterns in national politics and culture. But he also came to meet old friends and work on new plays, especially pleased that the Public Theater asked to stage the world premiere of “King Hedley II” for the opening of its new Downtown home, the O’Reilly Theater, in 1999.
He had come a long way from the back of 1727 Bedford Ave.
On the street front at 1727 was Bella’s Market, a small mom-and-pop store run by a Jewish couple, the Sigers. To the left, at 1725, lived the Italian Butera brothers, one repairing shoes, the other clocks. And down a very tight walkway (the adjacent house is long gone, but the path is still there), in back, up a short flight of steps, were the two rooms (later four) occupied by the Wilson-Kittel family.
Italians and Jews in front, blacks behind: It was the paradigm of the multicultural early- to mid-20th century Hill, in which those three ethnic groups predominated. While here in 1999, August visited his moldering childhood home, as the photo on this page shows. He was pleased that it had been bought by his nephew, Paul Ellis, and together they bought the Butera house next door.
August knew his birthplace might someday be preserved, but he insisted it not be just a memorial. It should be useful. So that has been our goal from the start.
The long journey has been led by Paul, fortunately a lawyer, and by Rob Pfaffmann, a well known preservationist and architect. Paul steered the house through the slow process of having it designated a historic landmark. Starting in 2011, there were initial reconstruction projects — shoring up floors and walls, masonry patches, a temporary roof — without which the building would have crumbled further away. In 2014, there was a careful reconstruction of the street façade.
But bigger plans, including fundraising, were hampered by the highly publicized financial travails of the August Wilson Center, Downtown. “We’re already giving to August Wilson,” some said.
With all due respect to that center for African-American culture, which we have warmly supported, it has no more to do with the life of August Wilson than other buildings do with the famous names they bear — the Kennedy Center, say, or Lincoln Center. In contrast, the August Wilson House is at the very heart of its namesake’s remarkable life story.
That story is one August identified deeply with his mother. “I grew up in my mother’s household,” he said. She “had a very hard time feeding us all. But I had a wonderful childhood. … As a family, we did things together. … We all sat down and had dinner at a certain time. … We didn’t have a TV, so we listened to the radio.”
If those walls could talk.
In May, renovations will begin by restoring the exterior to its appearance when August lived there (1945-58). Severely deteriorated masonry will be restored brick by brick. With the exterior essentially complete later this year, we will begin our major capital campaign. (If you can’t wait, send checks to the Daisy Wilson Artist Community, 1621 Bedford Ave., Pittsburgh 15219, or go to the August Wilson House on Facebook)
From noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, we’re holding a block party in front of the house to celebrate the start of the restoration and August’s 71st birthday. Stop by for performances, celebrities, food trucks, a disc jockey, children’s activities and vendors.
Restoration of the interior will occur in phases, beginning with Bella’s Market, which will be a small gallery and meeting and performance space. The family’s original rooms will become the Daisy Wilson Apartment for Visiting August Wilson Artists (literary, musical or visual), chosen in collaboration with Pittsburgh universities. There will be a seminar space and guest bedrooms. Although the Butera house is being demolished, it will eventually be reconstructed behind its original façade to provide room for studios.
This is a house. The spaces will be intimate, like the rooms in August’s life and plays. In both, he tackled large questions of self-identity, racism and justice, but at their heart, the plays dramatize conflicts between generations and within families. As a place to explore these cultural narratives, the August Wilson House will support literature, music and the fine arts on the personal scale that August first encountered them.
We hope he would find that useful. We hope Pittsburgh (and those cultural tourists) will share our pride in his extraordinary life.
Christopher Rawson (412-216-1944) is the Post-Gazette senior theater critic. This essay borrows from his coverage of August Wilson in the Post-Gazette and from the book he wrote with Laurence Glasco, “August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays,” published by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (2nd ed., 2015).
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