Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Celebrate National Arts and Humanities Month with the August Wilson House

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October is the opportunity to explore the arts in your local community as part of National Arts and Humanities Month.  This month-long celebration was established to honor of the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965.

Much like National Historic Preservation Month celebrated by the preservation community in May, National Arts and Humanities Month calls upon local arts groups to raise awareness of the role that the arts and humanities play in their communities and lives. Whether art, theater, dance or music, the humanities touch every part of the Pennsylvania landscape. 

It seems apropos to celebrate #ShowYourArt2019 campaign with the work to rehabilitate the childhood home of August Wilson in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Allegheny County. 

August Wilson

August Wilson was a playwright best known for his Pittsburgh Cycle of ten plays examining the African American experience throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  These plays included Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), Fences (1985), and The Piano Lesson (1987).  At the time of his death in 2005, Wilson was recognized with seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, two Tony Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes.  

Wilson and his work are honored by this PHMC historical marker, which was installed outside his home in 2007.

Wilson drew much of the atmosphere of the Hill District into his work incorporating the businesses and culture that he absorbed growing up.  His childhood home, located at 1727 Bedford Avenue, was the basis for his play Seven Guitars (1996).  The August Wilson House (PA SHPO #155045) was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

The August Wilson House

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission began its partnership with the August Wilson House as part of the National Register nomination project. Funding from the Keystone Historic Preservation Grant program was directed to Preservation Pittsburgh to begin the nomination process in fiscal year 2010.  This success was built off of two previous studies that looked at feasibility and stabilization for the building. 

The Daisy Wilson Arts Community emerged as the organization to develop the property into a community space celebrating Wilson’s work through seminars, readings, receptions, exhibits and performances while providing living space for other emerging artists. 

The Keystone program has continued our positive working relationship by providing funding to correct a structural deficiency with the first-floor storefront lintel and masonry repair of the front façade (2012) and a later comprehensive repair of the exterior masonry, including integrating interior floor system flooring into exterior masonry walls and removing temporary shoring (2014).

August Wilson House, photo Pfaffmann + Associates.

Ground Blessing

Daisy Wilson invited the PHMC to their September 26, 2018 event celebrating the next phase of the initiative.  The event was a true celebration of Wilson’s work with performances by local actors and discussions of the importance of Pittsburgh’s Hill District and the unveiling of the plans for the building. 

August Wilson Ground Blessing in 2018.

Over the next year, Daisy Wilson Arts Community was successful in leveraging additional money from other sources for construction as well as additional interpretation and exhibit planning. Since the neighborhood was such an important backdrop for all of Wilson’s plays, the organization is looking beyond just the four walls of the Wilson House to preserve the remaining character in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. 

Keystone Support Continues

A Keystone Grant from our last funding round will develop a conservation plan for remaining extant residential structures in the adjacent two block section of Bedford Avenue with the goal to providing housing to visiting students. 

Bedford Avenue Streetscape, photo Daisy Wilson Artist Community, Inc.

This multi-prong plan will address the loss of character in the neighborhood from vacancies, demolitions, and removal of historic fabric by speculative developers. 

The plan will investigate the significance and existing conditions of each property and create an Urban Context Plan that identifies key view corridors from the Wilson House.  Street elevations will then show the importance of the historic context in terms of scale, massing and architecture.  One of the key deliverables from the project will be a Preservation Resource Guide to assist owners of simple preservation techniques and technical assistance. 

UPDATE: Save America’s Treasures Grant

Since this post was published, we have learned that the August Wilson House will also benefit from a Save America’s Treasures Grant from the National Park Service.

The grant, awarded by the National Park Service, will help pay for interior renovations needed to transform Wilson’s home into an arts and culture center.

The August Wilson and the energy surrounding its rehabilitation is the perfect centerpiece for the National Arts and Humanities Month celebration.  But it isn’t the only one in Pennsylvania.  If you are interested in joining the fun, check out the Americans for the Arts website at https://www.americansforthearts.org/events/national-arts-and-humanities-month for ways to get involved.

Author: Karen Arnold

Karen Arnold manages the Keystone Historic Preservation Grant program at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).

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