Paul Ellis, nephew of Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson, has worked for more than a decade to preserve his uncle’s childhood home in Pittsburgh’s Hill District as a center for arts and culture.
On Monday, he joined Duquesne University and city officials in announcing the approval of a highly competitive National Park Service grant totalling $499,626 that will permit final renovations to the house he describes as “sacred ground.”
“We are very thrilled and pleased,” Ellis said. “This grant is another example of the national recognition that continues to be enjoyed by the city of Pittsburgh and our world renowned civic and cultural institutions. We’re excited to be nearing completion as we prepare for the commencement of construction later on this fall.”
The Save America’s Treasures grant will be used for interior renovations. Actor Denzel Washington led an effort last year to raise $5 million for preservation of the 1727 Bedford Ave. house. Washington became involved after spending time in Pittsburgh for the 2016 film production of Wilson’s play “Fences”; Washington was the producer, director and star of the film.
Seventeen other projects, including a Smithsonian Institution effort to save sound recordings from Alexander Graham Bell’s laboratory, received similar-sized grants.
Renovations are expected to be completed in time for a grand opening in 2021 on April 27, August Wilson’s birthday. The nearly 200-year-old building will be restored to its 1950s-era look to match its appearance when Wilson lived there with his mother and five siblings.
Wilson, who died in 2005, last visited the house in 1999.
“I believe August Wilson can be counted among the greatest writers now in American history,” said Ken Gormley president of Duquesne University. “We’re going to witness a rebirth of the spirit of August Wilson and the spirit of his birthplace in the Hill, a place where art, music, theater and literature will once again be brought to life.”
Duquesne will administer the grant.
Gormley said the university will continue an artist-in-residency fellowship program centered on the house that last year featured former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey. He said a local artist has been chosen for 2019 and would be announced in coming weeks.
Ellis said he would continue raising funds for house maintenance and artistic programs throughout Pittsburgh.
The house was falling down when Shelton Building Associates, an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Trade Institute, stepped in five years ago with former prison inmates to rebuild the crumbling brick facade and complete interior framing. The trade institute specializes in training former inmates for jobs in construction.
Rob Pfaffmann of Downtown-based Pfaffmann and Associates architects, who designed plans for the house, said it dates to the 1840s and was originally a farmhouse inhabited by a Pittsburgh abolitionist.
“This is the person that told the story of 20th-century America, that told the story of what it was like to be black in a city and to be able to grow up, what the challenges were, what the beauty was and told it in such a way that resonated throughout this entire country, no matter what city you lived in,” Mayor Bill Peduto said.