For 20 years, Jonnet Solomon has made it her mission to preserve, protect and ultimately restore a national landmark, the National Negro Opera House in Homewood, named one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the country.
But the Queen Anne-style building, constructed in 1894, is now in imminent danger of collapse. Solomon estimates it will cost up to $2.6 million to fix the house, and this week the Richard King Mellon Foundation contributed $500,000 to help stabilize it.
“This property once was the center of Black cultural life in Pittsburgh and a national artistic destination,” says R.K. Mellon Foundation Director Sam Reiman.
The house at 7101 Apple St. was home to the National Negro Opera Company — the first permanent African-American opera company in the nation.
It also served as a safe house. Despite their celebrity, many Black stars of the day were not welcome at hotels and apartments in much of Pittsburgh due to rampant housing discrimination. Great musicians, such as Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and Duke Ellington, and visiting athletes, such as heavyweight champion Joe Louis, and Pittsburgh’s own Roberto Clemente, found refuge there.
Mary Cardwell Dawson founded the National Negro Opera Company in 1941, providing talented African-American singers with opportunities unavailable elsewhere in a segregated country. For 21 years, she trained students in voice and classical music, including jazz piano giant Ahmad Jamal and Broadway performer Napoleon Reed.
The home was owned at one point by Pittsburgh legend William A. “Woogie” Harris, who ran the numbers racket in the city, with his Crystal Barbershop on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District as a front for this lucrative operation.
“The uniqueness is really the events that happened in the house, but the house itself is a magnificent structure,” says Solomon, an accountant by profession who purchased the home with the late Miriam White in 2000.
R. K. Mellon Foundation leaders hope the gift will inspire other donations, and the restoration has been a draw for other philanthropic efforts in the past. Grammy- and Emmy-winning mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves formed a foundation to raise funds and awareness for the Opera House as its first philanthropic project, and has been instrumental in bringing attention to the plight of this neglected building.
Solomon plans to not only save the building but also to make it into a self-guided museum, with programming showcasing disadvantaged young artists of today.
“This has been a 20-year, life-altering labor of love,” says Solomon. “And I’m more hopeful now than ever that we can preserve this historic house and make it an artistic hub for the community once again. This gift is the catalyst that will inspire others to do the same.”