It’s that time of the year when preservationists express love for their favorite places — from that kitschy diner that’s been there for decades to the historic house museum that connects the community to the lessons learned by their ancestors.
In Pittsburgh, there’s a lot of love for the former National Negro Opera Company mansion, located on Apple Street in the city’s Homewood neighborhood. The house has many stories to tell and its owner, Jonnet Solomon, is pursuing restoration of the building in order to offer arts and music programming.
The National Negro Opera Company House was announced as a National Trust for Historic Preservation “11 Most Endangered” in September 2020. The Young Preservationists Association, in collaboration with Ms. Jonnet Solomon, submitted a nomination that was successful and drew national attention to the house, its history, and plans to bring it back to life. (Preservation Pennsylvania invited Matthew Craig, the organization’s executive director, to speak at our 2020 Statewide Conference on Heritage about their nomination and the house’s significance [click here to view session].
Ms. Solomon recently provided us with more insights about her efforts and an update below.
About the House on Apple Street
The Queen Anne-style house was built in 1894. In the 1930s, it was purchased by one of the city’s first African American millionaires, William “Woogie” Harris, and soon became a setting for legendary tales of wealth, fame, and power. In the era of segregation, it offered rooms and hospitality for visiting celebrities who were excluded from the area’s white-only hotels. Harris hosted singer Lena Horne, bandleader Cab Calloway, and sports heroes such as boxer Joe Louis and Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente, one of the first Latin American baseball stars in the United States.
In 1941, the building became the headquarters for the National Negro Opera Company, established by Madame Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962). The company’s repertoire consisted mainly of six operas and one oratorio. The Ordering of Moses oratorio was arranged by Dawson for operatic presentation. The operas included Carmen (Bizet), Faust (Gounod), Aida (Verdi), La Traviata (Verdi), Il Trovatore (Verdi), and Ouanga (Clarence Cameron White). (View production images at the archives of the Carnegie Museum of Art archive. Photos by Charles “Teenie” Harris, brother of the house’s owner, William Harris.)
Dawson collaborated with many prominent musical figures of the period, such as Marian Anderson, Muriel Rahn, Robert McFerrin, and Todd Duncan. She and her husband Walter M. Dawson fought against discrimination, connecting with political and community leaders including Eleanor Roosevelt, P. L. Prattis, and Mary MacLeod Bethune. In the late 1940s, Dawson moved to Washington, D.C., which became the center of the company’s activities. There were active chapters in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Pittsburgh, and Red Bank, New Jersey.
The company ceased operations after Ms. Dawson’s death in 1962 and the house has been mostly vacant since then.
“There are countless brilliant Black artists and innovators throughout history whose contributions have been kept in the dark or erased. They are long overdue to be elevated and celebrated, and Mary Cardwell Dawson’s story is chief among them. Her extraordinary accomplishments and advocacy for racial equity in the opera world at the height of the Jim Crow era serve as an inspiration and indication of how much progress we still need to make today.” — Kimille Howard, Director, THE PASSION OF MARY CARDWELL DAWSON DIGITAL PROGRAM, presented at the 2021 Glimmerglass Music Festival
A New Chapter for a Storied Home
The once-elegant building retains the power to fire the imagination. Jonnet Solomon, with Ms. Miriam White, purchased the property in 2000 with dreams of rehabilitating it and returning it to its status as a community hub for the arts. Preservation Pennsylvania asked a few questions in order to share one preservationist’s passion with you.
Jonnet, tell us a little about yourself: where are you from and how are you part of Homewood?
I am originally from Guyana, South America. I was good friends with Ms. Miriam White and while driving I saw the plaque about the National Negro Opera Company. Seeing the plaque and then purchasing the house has made me part of the community.
This neighborhood has such a rich history. When the William Harris house caught your eye, were you aware of its legendary status in the neighborhood?
I was not aware of the history when I first found it. When I asked people about the house, very few knew about it. When I googled it, nothing was found. I am inspired to preserve and honor the historic site in order to protect the stories of the people who contributed to the space and create opportunities for artists to achieve their full potential.
Do you consider yourself a “preservationist”? Considering how long the house had been empty, what made you want to buy it?
I had not considered calling myself a preservationist. When I saw the house and how neglected it was and how the stories of the amazing people connected with it had not been told, I felt I could save the house and tell the stories. In addition, I had a partner in Ms. Miriam White. She felt that together we could do what is necessary to save the house and tell the stories. Sadly, she passed away in March 2009. Ms. White had never been in the house before we purchased it but she dreamed of going to parties in the house. She loved the history and the legacy of the house and always wanted it preserved.
The Young Preservationists Association listed the house on their 2003 “Top 10 Preservation Opportunities” and worked with you on a nomination to the National Trust’s “11 Most Endangered,” which has helped promote the house’s history and plight nationally. Do you feel like your preservation efforts are gaining momentum and what other organizations have joined your preservation coalition?
Being selected as one of the “11 Most Endangered” definitely put more light on the restoration project, but the Young Preservationists Association is no longer involved. This project is fortunate to have other advocates such as our architect, Milton Ogot, Preservation Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh History and Landmarks, the Environmental Charter School and many others. Together, we are working hard to get the project supported and sustained.
What is the latest preservation update?
We have our meeting scheduled with the city to get approval to start working on the structure and we are working diligently to tell the story and raise funds. [Update: the plans were approved.] We plan on applying for grant funding and reaching out to individuals for support. It is necessary to partner with foundations and we have amazing support there but to strengthen that support we believe that working with individuals is extremely important.
There’s a wonderful harmony that when the National Trust announced the recipients of the 2021 African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund grants ($3 Million to 40 sites), that the two sites in Pennsylvania are connected: the National Marian Anderson Historical Society and Museum in Philadelphia and the National Negro Opera Company in Pittsburgh. What are your plans for the funding?
We plan on implementing phase one of our stabilization and restoration plans. In this initial phase we will winterize the house, do all of the architectural salvage and secure the site. In addition, we will structurally support the house to stop any further deterioration. Lastly, we will add professional staff and build capacity. It’s the perfect catalyst needed to keep the project moving forward.
What do you hope to accomplish in 2022?
In 2022, we hope to raise the funds necessary to complete the restoration project and start planning our programs.
In 2022 we have very ambitious plans. There are three phases to our plan, stabilization, restoration and preservation. After stabilization we will install temporary electricity and start the critical framing process. We will conduct the initial site work and and complete phase 1 of the interior fit out. We will hire a program officer and start programmatic planning and implementation. The total estimated cost for the project is $3 million and it’s expected to take 18 months to complete. To implement our programs we have developed partnerships with Pittsburgh History and Landmarks, the Environmental Charter School and Pittsburgh Opera.
You’ve set up a website to help people learn more about the property and get involved. What’s the one thing you’d want everyone to know about this special place?
I want people to know that preserving places and spaces matter and telling a complete story changes lives. Starting the journey of the preservation of this house has drastically changed my own life. The lessons needed for growth have been a direct result of this project. It has given me more patience, the skill to persevere and the ability to hear the answer “no” until I can get to a “yes.” This project has given me strength and courage I never knew existed in me and I am grateful and humbled by the entire process.
To support and learn more about the historic opera company house, visit their website.
“The Fight to Save the National Negro Opera Company House,” National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2/11/2022
“Owner, architect race to save decaying National Negro Opera Company house in Homewood,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
National Trust Intervention Fund, 2/2021
National Negro Opera Company Collection at the Library of Congress
Read Curbed’s account of “The Preservation Puzzle of Mystery Manor”
Visit the National Opera House website for a trove of additional information, from articles and video interviews with Ms. Solomon to a mini-documentary on the opera company’s history.