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New Granada Theatre could turn a corner

C. Denise Johnson
New Pittsburgh Courier Staff Writer
October 5, 2006

View all articles by C. Denise Johnson
Grop plans to bring new life to once prominent site
A single glance conjures images to bygone days of women dressed to the nines and their Jim Dandies. For some it brings backs days of daylong movie matinees. For others still, the New Granada is a constant reminder of dreams deferred.

Much of recent Hill District memories evolve around loss: loss of a once-thriving neighborhood based business district and a community on the verge of prosperity. Then came urban renewal.

All of the advantages that justified the construction of the civic arena missed the Hill. Aspirations of improvement and/or expansion became as frozen as the Penguin’s playing surface; for years the Hill has been stuck in time.

The promise of rebirth springs eternal and such is the case for the New Granada.

Two years ago, the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh cited the deserted venue as one of its “Top Ten Best Preservation Opportunities, which lead to Pittsburgh City Council designated the site as a local historical landmark.

Plans are afoot to secure a national designation, says Marimba Milliones of the Hill Community Redevelopment Corp.

“The New Granada is on the itinerary for the National Trust when they hold their conference in Pittsburgh next month,” Milliones said.

In the interim a collaborative of concerned community residents along with the HCRC, YPF, artists, and architecture gather for the specific purpose of bringing new life to the prominent eyesore.

It is a painstaking process that involves structural analysis, feasibility studies and visioning groups made up of the immediate stakeholders—Hill District residents.

“The New Granada is a community icon, and we must be very deliberate in how we proceed,” said Milliones.

In the interim, there have been several efforts to spur development, said former City Councilman Sala Udin.

“There was a committee set up by the mayor’s office during Tom Murphy’s administration,” said Udin, who represented the Hill on council. “The police chief also was a part of that group.”

Part of the reason for the slower re-birth of the New Granada is the ongoing open-air drug activity along that block of Centre Avenue.

“That’s the fly in the ointment, offered Udin.
“It was acknowledged that one of the ways to promote invest and redevelopment on the Hill is to eradicate the drug trafficking. I know there was one meeting, but I’m not aware of any subsequent meetings or outcomes, Udin commented.

Evan Frazier agrees. As the Executive Director of the Hill House, Frazier is keenly cognizant of the structure’s significance to the Hill.

“The New Granada is part of the Hill’s signature, so it’s important that the legacy be preserved,” observed Frazier. “Community should be flexible to make sure whatever is decided on is sustainable and attractive to investors. It should be developed to add value to the community and the region.”

Future options for the building are many and because of its size, Milliones says it could be a multi-purpose facility that could eventually become the hub of a revitalized Centre Avenue corridor.

Designed 1927 by local architect Louis Bellinger—one of the few Black architects in the country and constructed in 1928, the building was as a base for the local chapter of the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal group of Black construction workers. The structure also offered commercial and office space.

Ten years later the facility was converted in to a commercial theater by it’s then owner, Harry Hendel, who renamed the facility in light of the demise of another business venture, the original Granada situated two blocks away on Centre Avenue.

The New Granada also housed the Savoy Ballroom (a former auditorium) which opened in 1941, hosting such luminaries as Stanley Turrentine, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, to name a few and developed a storied history as evidence by this Courier account:

“In January 1932, the Pythian Temple hosted the largest crowd in its history when the Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s pre-eminent African-American newspaper, crowned Duke Ellington the “King of Jazz” in a concert and presentation broadcast nationally over radio station WCAE. This event shattered previous attendance records of any such event in the city and to date has never been equaled. Nearly 3,000 patrons from as far as New York City, including his mother, wife, sister and son, watched as Ellington was presented with the Courier’s “Loving Cup.” Ellington’s mother later expressed her gratitude for the event and her son’s honor to the Courier in a letter to the editor. The people of the Hill District still refer to the event as the crowning of the “King of Jazz,” and “…second to none in the annals of time of the Hill District.”

According to Milliones, the theatre’s immediate future includes a feasibility study.

“Considering how long it’s been vacant, it’s in relatively good condition aside from the need of a new roof,” she said. “We also exploring the possibility of it becoming an energy efficient, environmentally-friendly “green building.”

Funding is another challenge and is part of the reasoning for the New Granada’s inclusion on the National Trust’s radar. “A lot of the preliminary work is technical in nature, which means the need for funding.”

Members of the New Granada Theatre Committee, which Milliones co-chairs, include Robert Neu of the Kelly-Strayhorn, Hill resident and entrepreneur Williams Benton, attorney William Bercik, Cathy McCollum of Pittsburgh History and Landmarks and Chloe Velasquez of YPAP.

Milliones sees potential for a multipurpose facility based on the size of the structure.

“It’s a phenomenal building!” Milliones exclaimed.

“It represents a tremendous opportunity to add momentum to the ongoing development along the Centre Avenue corridor,” added Frazier.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633