City of Asylum
City of Asylum @Alphaet City under construction, photo by Maya Henry.

A derelict building will soon be a jewel of the community as the redevelopment of the Masonic Hall moves forward as City of Asylum @ Alphabet City.

It is on schedule to open in September with a splash. On September 9-10 Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, will be the guest of honor at the grand opening. Her appearance will launch City of Asylum’s expanded, year-round programming.

The project, as NEXTpittsburgh previously reported, gained traction in September of last year with the sale of the Masonic Hall from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to City of Asylum.

The final plans for the project, designed by Loysen + Kreuthmeier Architects and Indovina Associates Architects, include eight residential apartments on upper floors and a hot new restaurant on the first floor from Brian Keyser of Casellula Cheese & Wine Cafe in Manhattan. Keyser’s new small plates-focused restaurant will share the bottom floor with a flexible event and performance space (that can be rented out) and a 1,200-square-foot bookstore to feature translated books as well as other new and used selections curated by the bookstore’s manager Lesley Rains, former owner of the East End Book Exchange.

City of Asylum @ Alphabet City will be a permanent home for an organization that has long relied on transitory programming to create a thriving community for writers, readers, and neighbors. Its mission is to provide sanctuary to endangered literary writers, allowing them to continue to write so their voices are not silenced.

City of Asylum, the project’s developer, is already known for transforming several vacant homes on Sampsonia Way into art houses, following in the footsteps of the Mattress Factory in creating an arts and literary hub in the Federal-North area on the border of Central North Side and Allegheny Center.

“At City of Asylum @ Alphabet City, we will finally have a home, where we can program year-round,” says Henry Reese, co-founder and president of City of Asylum. “Since 2004 we have presented over 300 writers and musicians from 63 countries. But because we don’t have a facility, we have had to program catch as catch can, under tents on vacant lots, on closed streets, and in neighborhood homes and gardens.”

City of Asylum @ Alphabet City
Mayor Bill Peduto and Henry Reese discuss City of Asylum @ Alphabet City inside the Masonic Hall.

The Garden Theater block has seen a long history of failed developer proposals. It took an anchor tenant with a global mission, residential units with a 25% affordability component, and a second location for a New York City restaurant to achieve the right combination for success. All these tenants will be contributing to a development that will have impacts “much beyond the borders of the North Side and much beyond the borders of Pittsburgh,” says Mayor Bill Peduto.

So far $10,500,000 has been raised in the $12,500,000 capital campaign. The initial funding allows for the acquisition, rehab, and outfitting of the Masonic Building and for free, open-to-the-public programming for the first year. A reserve fund for writer emergencies and future fluctuations has also been created.

City of Asylum has received a total of $3.2 million in philanthropic grants. The URA through its Pittsburgh Urban Initiative affiliate, together with PNC, contributed New Market Tax Credit allocations of $8 million and the balance is a blend of federal and state historic tax credits, state grants, Community Infrastructure and Tourism Funds, a façade grant, a grant from the Allegheny Regional Asses District, loans from Bridgeway Capital and The Reinvestment Fund, and donations from the City of Asylum board.

City of Asylum has launched the Founding Members Fund to close the remaining 16% gap of their funding goal. To become a founding member, contact Adam Stokes at 412-323-0278 or by email.

Maya Haptas has an M.A. in Historic Preservation Planning from Cornell University and is a freelance writer covering various topics from architecture and urban design to wellness and skateboarding. She is currently the assistant editor of Bigfoot Skateboarding Magazine.