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Historic status for Wilson’s boyhood home hits political snag

Wednesday, January 30, 2008
By Rich Lord, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh City Council will consider historic designation for the boyhood home of the late playwright August Wilson despite a timing problem that could complicate the effort, members said yesterday.

Mr. Wilson’s niece, Kimberly Ellis, said that it would be “a citywide disgrace” if politics jeopardized the designation.

The house at 1727 Bedford Ave. in the Hill District was nominated in March for historic designation by Paul Ellis Jr., nephew of Mr. Wilson and brother of Kim Ellis. The Historic Review Commission and city planning commission both signed off. The petition was sent to council Oct. 10 for final approval.

There it sat until last week, when Mr. Ellis complained. The city code indicates that if council doesn’t act on a historic designation within 90 days of its introduction, the application is denied and can’t be resubmitted for five years, said Council President Doug Shields. That deadline passed early this month.

Mr. Shields got a Law Department opinion saying that since the delay was not Mr. Ellis’ fault, it shouldn’t count against him. He said council will hold a public hearing and vote on the designation.

Mr. Shields said the legislation stalled after it went to the chair of the Planning, Zoning and Land Use Committee. Last year, that was Councilwoman Tonya Payne, of the Hill.

Ms. Payne said she didn’t “know what happened to it,” but when she found out it had fallen through the cracks, she “started chasing it down.”

Ms. Ellis, chair of the Historic Hill Initiative, said she has been “an outspoken critic” of Ms. Payne since the councilwoman backed a bid to put a slots parlor in the neighborhood.

“To think that there would be a four-month delay to historic designation due to politics is a disgrace,” she said.

Ms. Payne said historic designation is “a slam dunk.”

Mr. Ellis said making the house a historic structure is “a great way to honor my uncle’s legacy. Part of my motivation is the scarcity of African-American historic landmarks in the city.”

The emergence of the designation bill follows Monday’s announcement of a $35,300 grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation to the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. That grant is to help Mr. Ellis to turn the now-vacant house into a retreat for writers.

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542.
First published on January 30, 2008 at 12:00 am

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