February 11, 2022

The Fight to Save the National Negro Opera Company House

Jonnet Solomon was driving through Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood one day more than 20 years ago when a large, abandoned Queen Anne-style manor house on Apple Street caught her eye. She pulled over, got out, and read the historical plaque outside. This marked her first encounter with the story of the National Negro Opera Company, an organization founded in 1941 by Mary Cardwell Dawson that was once headquartered in the building.

Solomon, an accountant, freely admits history was not her favorite subject in school, but she was struck by what she discovered that day. Since she isn’t a Pittsburgh native, Solomon figured she could find out more about the location and the National Negro Opera Company by asking around town. But to her surprise, locals didn’t know anything about it, either. That erasure from the city’s collective memory is what convinced her to try, somehow, to preserve the house.

Solomon wound up purchasing the manor—which, at the time, was owned by a bank that she says was thrilled to relinquish it—in 2000 and launched what turned into a multi-decade effort to save the structure from deterioration or demolition and pass along the lost history that took place behind its walls.

The exterior of the National Negro Opera House in PIttsburgh.

photo by: Ed Massery

The National Negro Opera Company House today.

Where the Greats Would Gather

The house is believed to have been constructed circa 1894 at the behest of a couple, George and Lizzie Shafer, who lived there until the 1920s. The property changed hands two more times before William A. “Woogie” Harris, one of several wealthy Black businessmen to buy buildings in Homewood during the 1920s and 30s, purchased it.

Harris was a prominent figure in Pittsburgh’s Black community at the time. Solomon says he ostensibly functioned as a bank, giving out loans to people who were not permitted to secure them from official institutions because of their race. His penchant for making connections seems to have turned the house into a focal point of Pittsburgh’sand even the country’sBlack arts and culture scene.

Harris intended for the house to become a place where Black Americans could live, stay, and gather.

“He knew it would be a residence for people who couldn’t stay anywhere else,” Solomon says. “It was a community. He wanted people to have a safe space to really just be who they are.”

Some of the figures who stayed at or frequented the house include Lena Horne, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington, as well as athletes such as Joe Louis, Roberto Clemente, and countless Pittsburgh Steelers players. That so many talented people mingled there often leaves Solomon wondering whether they affected one another’s work, even subliminally.

The National Negro Opera Company

One person who utilized the house was Mary Cardwell Dawson, a classically trained opera singer. Hindered by racism within the opera industry, Dawson never achieved her dream of becoming a star on stage, but she did run a successful music school, teaching lessons from Harris’ home.

After seeing so many other talented singers face the same roadblocks she did, Dawson took matters into her own hands and rented the third floor of the building as headquarters for the newly formed National Negro Opera Company. It wasn’t the first organization of its kind, but it did become one of the largest, most well-known, and longest-running, and there’s little doubt that having the support and space provided by Harris helped Dawson and her troupe reach great heights.

“[Harris] didn’t know at the time that Mary Cardwell Dawson would train people like [acclaimed jazz pianist] Ahmad Jamal,” Solomon says. “He didn’t know the depth and breadth of what he was providing. His thing was,You need a space? I got you.’”

Solomon says she remains in awe of Dawson’s tenacity and work ethic. By the time she was guiding the company, Dawson was at once an artist, an educator, an entrepreneur, and the executive director of her organization.

The organization was successful, traveling to several major American cities, where they would put on performances of Aida, La Traviata, and other renowned operas that captivated audiences of all races

“The people that were cast in these plays were so grateful for the opportunity to be on stage that they brought everything they had,” Solomon says. “And so the audience was just blown away.”

Mary Cardwell Dawson, the founder of the National Negro Opera Company.

photo by: National Opera House

Acclaimed opera teacher Mary Cardwell Dawson, the founder of the National Negro Opera Company.

That didn’t mean they didn’t face challenges when it came to funding and opportunity, of course, and the playing field was still far from level. So Dawson would deploy her rebellious side to circumvent some of these issues, including in 1956, when, through little else other than perseverance, she convinced the Metropolitan Opera House to provide a time for her company to perform Ouangaan opera composed by an Black American, Clarence Cameron Whiteon its stage, making it the first outside group to do so. Dawson was also known for bending the truth a bit to help boost the reputation of her organization, sometimes listing prominent, wealthy Americans as benefactors or board members without their knowledge, though there were several well-known figures who did offer their support.

The National Negro Opera Company shuttered after Dawson, its driving force, died in 1962, and the house on Apple Street lost much of its luster, as well, when Harris passed away just five years later. The house remained under the ownership of his wife, Ada B. Harris, until she died in the 1970s. After that, it was sent to orphanage court, then wound up back in the hands of Harris' relatives, and, finally, the Bank of New York, before Solomon bought it.

Preservation Challenges

The next few years were challenging, Solomon says, explaining that she doesn’t want to sugarcoat the process of setting up her nonprofit, National Opera House, which is focused on saving the house.

She was new to the world of preservation, in general, and initially wasn’t anticipating the many challenges she would go on to face. For instance, there was some resistance from members of the Homewood community who felt the cost of restoring the house wasn’t the best use of potential local funds.

There were logistical hurdles, as well. Solomon was, and still is, working as a volunteer (she remains a full-time accountant) and many of the people she originally set out to work with have since died, except for the architect and engineer.

But perhaps the biggest hindrance was what Solomon perceived to be the city of Pittsburgh’s past lack of interest in and support for preserving its own African American history.

“The path to preservation is not a golden road,” she says.

Recent Momentum

As Solomon continued her efforts, the physical structurewhich she says would have been habitable when she bought it—deteriorated, a process that accelerated in the last five years after frequent vandalism and thievery.

In response to the threats to the building, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the National Opera House one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2020. That helped spark a renewed, nationwide interest in the structure.

More recently, grants have been coming in. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced a $500,000 grant in January, matching the Richard King Mellon Foundation’s grant from April of 2021. In July of 2021, the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund provided $75,000.

Individual donations have also played a significant roleSolomon says she just finished typing 600 thank-you letters to donors from around the U.S. who have sent checks. She’s inching closer to her goal of raising $3 million to begin the stabilization and restoration process.

Solomon’s grand vision remains turning the National Opera House back into a version of what it once wasa place where artists could gather and explore their creative passions. She is also aiming for it to become a space where those artists can receive training on how to develop their businesses and brands. Additionally, Solomon aims to create a museum within the house where people can take self-guided tours that tell the story of the building and the National Negro Opera Company.

There are still several steps to take before that dream is realized; most immediately, Solomon is determined to use some of the recent funding to expand her staff. But, overall, she’s optimistic about the path she’s on, and she feels the project is gaining momentum among Homewood residents, as well.

“The community is more behind it than ever before,” Solomon says. “I think the community sees the importance of cultural spaces preserved. They see the value of preservation … they see the value of that kind of social equity … they want to tell their stories, too.”

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Tim O'Donnell is the assistant editor at Preservation magazine. When not writing about historic places, he spends most of his time reading about modern European history and hoping the Baltimore Orioles will turn their fortunes around. A Maryland native, he now lives in Brooklyn.

todonnell@savingplaces.org @T_S_Odonnell

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