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Preserving landmarks in the Hill

By Andrew Johnson
Friday, January 13, 2006

To longtime Hill District residents, it looks as though bombs destroyed some of the buildings in their neighborhood.
“It’s like a war-torn country,” said Bedford Avenue resident Irene Herndon, now in her 70s.

Where once the Roosevelt Theatre stood on Centre Avenue, now there is a parking lot. A smallish Subway restaurant and Cheap Tobacco & More have replaced the entertainment mecca.

One thing still standing in the Hill, left completely untouched, is August Wilson’s childhood home.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who died in October, grew up at 1727 Bedford Ave.

Although Wilson prospered in New York, Seattle and St. Paul, Minn., his Pittsburgh roots remained strong. Of his 10 plays about 20th-century life for blacks in America, nine were based in Pittsburgh.

Wilson’s legacy has gotten more respect than his Pittsburgh landmark.

“I think it’s significant enough to be part of any planned tour of Pittsburgh,” said Wilson’s nephew, Paul A. Ellis Jr.

Early last year, Ellis bought the Bedford Avenue home for $25,300.

Ellis, 36, wonders how much interest exists in preserving his uncle’s neglected home.

The house sold for $3,000 in 1997.

Outside of the home is a sign: “No loafing please.” The street is typically empty. There is a phone booth but no phone, an empty grocer on the first floor and a vacant watch-repair store next door. “RIP Bug, Scrobb, Diggs, MiMi and Booky,” reads writing on the home’s door.

Any restoration is likely to be expensive.

Ellis said it cost him more than $70,000 to renovate his grandmother’s two-story Bedford Avenue home a couple blocks down.

Before Wilson’s death, there were discussions about preserving the house. So far, nothing has happened.

Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh chairman Dan Holland said the house is worth saving.

“We’re losing a lot of what makes our city unique,” Holland said.

The association, which sent Ellis a packet of information about preservation, gives advice but no money.

Laurence Glasco, who teaches a course about the city’s black history at the University of Pittsburgh, said he would like to see Wilson’s house saved. He said the building and watch store represent the scope of racial diversity in the old neighborhood.

Glasco said Italian immigrants ran the repair store, a Jewish family operated the grocery, and the Wilsons, a black family, lived upstairs.

“The house kind of symbolizes that racial diversity,” Glasco said.

Glasco said the Hill was the first residential area in the city, home to 19th-century immigrants who walked from the Hill to jobs Downtown.

Today, residents said they can’t find much of anything that properly reflects their history.

The Hill District has 11 recognized landmarks, said Frank Stroker, assistant archivist for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Even when some Hill sites have been honored in the past, it has not changed their decayed state.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission placed a plaque outside the Crawford Grill, a famed jazz club, in 2001.

Today, there is a torn-up carpet in front of the closed club.

There are some homemade tributes to Wilson outside Centre Avenue’s New Granada Theatre.

“August, your work has ensured that we will never be forgotten,” reads one of the white signs posted on the building.

The New Granada itself sits abandoned, decades after it closed.

Snapshots from the Hill

Much of the Hill District’s rich history already has been lost, said Dan Holland, chairman of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh.

George Moses, 61, who lives on Centre Avenue, has a map of old churches, bars and other places he has pieced together. But that map hasn’t helped him find his childhood home.

Moses said he was born in the Lower Hill, but now, “I don’t even know what street I was on.” That’s how much the Hill changed when the Civic Arena — later renamed Mellon Arena — opened in 1961, he said. The arena replaced much of the Lower Hill when it was built.

Angelique Bamberg, historic-preservation planner for the city, said of the 75 “historic structures” in the city, only four are in the Hill District.

“There is not enough proportionally,” said Laurence Glasco, a University of Pittsburgh professor, who teaches about the city’s black history.

A City Historic Designation can be given to districts or individual buildings within the Pittsburgh city limits that are significant for architectural or historical reasons.

The designation helps protect old buildings from wrecking balls, provided they remain structurally sound, Bamberg said.

Public money does not help pay to maintain these buildings, she said.

To nominate a building, civic groups or individuals can submit a nomination to the Historic Review Commission. The HRC and the City Planning Commission review the nomination and make recommendations to City Council. Public hearings by the HRC and City Council are part of the process of reviewing nominations. City Council makes the final decision.

Frank Stroker, assistant archivist for the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, said the Hill District also has 11 historic landmarks.

To be considered a historic landmark in Allegheny County, a structure must be at least 50 years old and deemed architecturally significant. The Historic Plaque Designation Committee meets once a year to review nominations and recommend awards.

A historic-landmark designation provides no safeguard against demolition, Stroker said.

Preserving the Hill

The city has designated these Hill District buildings historic structures:

New Granada Theatre

John Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church

Centre Avenue YMCA

Madison Elementary School
The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has designated these sites as historic landmarks:

William H. McKelvy Gifted Center

Weil Technology Institute

Herron Hill Park

St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church

Hill House Kaufmann Auditorium

Connelly Technical Institute

Church of the Epiphany

Church of St. Benedict the Moor

Letsche Education Center

Madison Elementary School

Miller African Centered Academy

Andrew Johnson can be reached at or 412-380-5632.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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