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School, neighbors plan space for arts at Wilson House

| Monday, April 30, 2012, 9:01 p.m.
The August Wilson House at 1725 Bedford Ave. in the Hill District, the house to its left and the adjacent vacant lot have been purchased by advocates who want to transform the properties into an artists' center. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review

Duquesne University honors students and the August Wilson family want to turn the abandoned boyhood home of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright into a center for the arts.

Named for Wilson's mother, the nonprofit Daisy Wilson Artist Community on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District would boast a gallery space, artist residences, a coffeehouse and an outdoor venue for plays, concerts and movies.

Paul Ellis launched his dream for the artist community in 2005 when he acquired the three-story home where his uncle grew up. An adjacent 2 12-story building and a neighboring vacant lot are included in the plans, which could take a decade to become reality.

"This is a community-based project. You can't have a project of this scope without working with select partners, and Duquesne is as good as you can get," said Ellis, a Pittsburgh attorney.

Evan Stoddard, associate dean of Duquesne's McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts, said students from his Community and University Honors Seminar will unveil their plan at noon today at the Hill District branch of the Carnegie Library. Duquesne previously has offered pharmacy, health care and educational services in the neighborhood that was a bastion of Pittsburgh's jazz community during Wilson's childhood.

Although the completion of the Daisy Wilson project may be years away, earlier this spring the students persuaded the university to grade the vacant lot so it can be seeded and used as an outdoor venue later this year.

Duquesne junior Dominic DiBiasio, 21, of Greensburg said he hopes the Daisy Wilson Artist Community will help dispel the stigma the Hill carries for some as a violent, crime-ridden neighborhood.

"We wanted to get some jam sessions or movies or Wilson plays on the lot as soon as possible," said DiBiasio, who is pursuing a double major in math and physics.

Junior Emily Bittle, 20, echoed his sentiments. The English major from Chambersburg said she hopes her class' plan becomes a springboard for future Duquesne students to interact with the nonprofit.

"The students have been great. They're dedicated and resourceful. I loved working with them," Ellis said.

Architect Rob Pfaffmann, who sits on the board of the Daisy Wilson Artist Community, said the students' ideas could bear fruit for many years as the project develops.

"This is a no-brainer. It is on the leading edge of change. This could be a tipping point for changing a neighborhood," he said.

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