July 14, 2020

The August Wilson House: An Emblem of Creative Excellence in Pittsburgh’s Hill District

photo by: Emmai Alaquiva, Photographer and Filmmaker

There's no end to the list of things that inspire creativity. For many of us, our communities and surroundings ignite one-of-a-kind masterpieces that can coincidentally resonate with the world for a lifetime. Whether it is our neighborhood, our loved ones, or the homes where we live, our environments often influence our work, and such was definitely the case for playwright August Wilson.

Like Wilson, many successful artists have created their best work based on their upbringing. Even during a time of uncertainty and radical change, the award-winning artist and his historic childhood home can motivate current creatives to tap into their creativity and artistic expression inspired by their community.

Wilson’s childhood home influenced him to write award-winning plays that highlight the African American experience. Now, as an African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund grant recipient, the home will continue to inspire many Black creatives to master their artistry as an interactive cultural hub for years to come.

“It has inspired me,” said Paul Ellis, Wilson’s nephew and the founding executive director of the August Wilson House. “So we’re going through an interpretive planning process right now which was the basis of the grant we got from the National Trust and we wouldn’t be able to be in a position to undertake that process, especially in a sustained fashion like this if it wasn’t for the National Trust. I just want to express my sincere thanks and appreciation for that support and to remind the leadership that we are very much an ally in the fight and we’re here to assist in any way we can.”

The $50,000 grant is one of many donations that will help the August Wilson House become a multi-use building. It will support the local arts and creatives who have been influenced by the iconic playwright’s work. The building will not only honor Wilson’s legacy, but it will “extend his legacy by advancing the art and culture of the African diaspora and impacting the cultural landscape of the Hill and beyond."

The Legacy of August Wilson

Born in 1945, Wilson spent the first 13 years of his life in a multi-ethnic community located in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The area eventually became one of the nation’s most vibrant Black neighborhoods and served as the backdrop of many of Wilson’s plays.

The legendary artist lived at 1727 Bedford Avenue in a two-room home with his mother and five siblings. His stories were inspired by his upbringing and the “harsh and impoverished times” he and his family faced in Pittsburgh, according to a statement made by the August Wilson House. Wilson’s literary world is built upon his experiences inspired by his interactions with his family, his neighborhood, and his understanding of his environment living in the mid-20th century.

“I was just so deeply impacted by his personal journey which was fraught with perseverance and stories of self-determination working through his own challenges as a Black man in America and an interracial man, no less,” said Marimba Milliones, who is the president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation.

Wilson wrote ten plays that are a part of his American Century Cycle, with nine being set in the Hill District. According to the August Wilson House, he admitted that he could only write his plays about the city he grew up even after he moved. When talking about the city, he revealed, "I might have left Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh never left me."

Two of Wilson’s plays, “The Piano Lesson” (1990) and “Fences” (1987), won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, with the latter to become a successful motion picture film released in 2016, starring Viola Davis (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role) and Denzel Washington, who served as actor, director, and executive producer of the project.

As a testament to Wilson’s artistic legacy, just last month the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce announced that Wilson will be among 35 individuals honored in 2021 with one of the famous five-pointed terrazzo and brass stars embedded along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Wilson’s fame has already introduced his audience to the Hill District, and with this new honor, countless more people will learn about his historic neighborhood and his literary legacy.

“I might have left Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh never left me.”

August Wilson

Support and Donations

Ellis, like many others, are grateful that the creative visionary will continue to share the beauty of the community with the world through physical markers. Ellis, who also grew up in the area, spoke about the importance of his uncle’s childhood home and how it serves as a physical representation of impeccable artistry.

“The August Wilson house is located in the same neighborhood that I grew up in and it means a great deal to me because I’m very proud of the fact that my uncle came from a place of poverty and meager means,” Ellis said.

“To bring international distinction to your neighborhood and your city is a message of inspiration and motivation and unity to the Hill District residents,” he added. “I’m very proud of that. It is the type of pride that has fueled my passion. I’ve been working on this project for approximately 14 years and that’s why the house is very much personal, and you know, quite frankly, I felt blessed just to be able to lead this project. The opportunity to be involved in a project of this magnitude and simultaneously to give back to your neighborhood and use your God-given gifts, that's a real blessing and I don’t take that lightly.”

Since 2008, Ellis has been working on the restoration of his uncle’s home through the Daisy Wilson Artist, Community, Inc., which he founded in honor of Wilson’s mother. The home was left vacant for many years, but the state eventually designated it a historic landmark in 2007, and the National Park Service listed it on the National Register in 2013. Although the house is currently empty, events such as performances and celebrations to honor Wilson’s life and work still take place on location. The recent Action Fund grant will help fund renovations that will allow for greater visitation.

Denzel Washington has also actively supported August Wilson House preservation efforts since his involvement with “Fences.” Washington, along with other celebrities such as Tyler Perry, Shonda Rhimes, Spike Lee, and Oprah Winfrey, to name a few, has not only raised $5 million dollars to help with the restoration of the house, he’s also collaborating with Wilson’s family estate to make a series of motion pictures based on Wilson’s body of work. Last year, for example, Washington announced plans to produce Wilson’s award-winning play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.

Both Ellis and Milliones both express deep appreciation for the efforts to help Wilson’s legacy live on, particularly the concentrated effort of Black philanthropists and many organizations, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to raise awareness.

“I think that the American story is wholly incomplete without telling the African American story,” Milliones said. “When you’re talking to people about what happened or how something happened, you know it’s one thing to tell a story. It’s a different thing to say let me take you down to that building and share that experience with you and tell the story from a place that has happened... And so I think it is incumbent upon us as individual donors, as African Americans and Black folks with wealth to save our own places and to contribute.”

photo by: Rob Pfaffmann, Architect, August Wilson House

Wilson's play "Seven Guitars" is performed outdoors at the August Wilson House.

The Future of the August Wilson House

Once restored, visitors to the August Wilson House will experience a 1950s setting, similar to how the house looked when Wilson lived there. The house will also serve as an interpretive site, complete with digital and audio displays and artifacts documenting Wilson’s life. Artists, both locally and nationally, will work on projects, research, and community exchange opportunities. The grounds will host community gathering, events and performances as well, such as Wilson’s American Century plays and the August Wilson Festival, which occurs every two years.

Ellis believes it is incredibly important to create an environment for artists to thrive in, while also continuing the artistic legacy of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

“We know that the field of arts and culture brings out the best in people,” Ellis said. “There’s something about the arts that requires people to dig deep. It’s an opportunity to be creative. It’s an opportunity to contribute to society and be their personal best and engage in professional self-development.”

“So, when you have a figure like August Wilson who came along and contributed an unprecedented body of work to American literature, you have to have a place where you can house documents and other pieces of literature,” Ellis added. “Such as a library for students and scholars and researchers and a place where visitors and residents can deepen their understanding of one of the country’s greatest playwrights.”

Currently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the final stages of restoration have been paused. But in the meantime, the August Wilson House is still soliciting donations to fund the physical preservation of this significant part of Black American culture. Those who have already supported, like the National Trust, have been critical to supporting the vision Wilson imagined for his home.

"Working with Brent Leggs and learning about the various initiatives of the Trust, that type of activity is inspiring, and it motivates us,” Ellis said. “When you are involved in a project of this major caliber, you know that other people are out there like that working. They’re with you in spirit, fighting the fight and looking out for the community. It’s encouraging.”

The August Wilson House has already supported several Black artists and plans to support many more in the coming years. The site is a physical representation of why we should all support the arts and buildings that tell stories of the past.

To learn more about the August Wilson House and how to support the artist’s childhood home, please visit http://augustwilsonhouse.org.

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Brianna Rhodes is the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Fellow for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

brhodes@savingplace.org

Join the movement to save and sustain historic African American places. The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund will help every American see themselves, their history, and their potential in our collective story and national cultural landscape.

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