One hundred years ago two brothers died in Pittsburgh. Martin Burke was murdered Jan. 14, 1923, and Thomas Burke Sr. succumbed to heart disease that December. The Burke brothers were hospitality entrepreneurs whose saloons, hotel, dance hall and other businesses helped to make the intersection of Fullerton Street and Wylie Avenue one of the hottest spots in Pittsburgh’s spiciest and most memorable entertainment district.
Located in the heart of the Lower Hill District, local media personalities dubbed it the “Crossroads of the World.”
It didn’t take long for the label to spread across the entire Hill. The Burke establishments attracted other businesses that banked on Pittsburgh’s seemingly growing demand for food, drink and entertainment. By the early 1950s, observers were comparing the Fullerton and Wylie intersection to such bustling Black meccas as Harlem and Washington, D.C.,’s U Street corridor.
Turn of the century in the Hill
The Hill District at the turn of the 20th century was a multi-ethnic community where immigrants from across the globe established homes and businesses. The Hill’s history as a destination for diverse groups of immigrants dates back to the decades before the Civil War. Many formerly enslaved African Americans settled there before the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act stanched migration and forced others farther north.
After 1910 and riding the population wave dubbed the Great Migration, increasing numbers of new Black migrants lived, worked and played cheek by jowl with Greek, Irish, Italian, Syrian and Eastern European Jews. Excluded from good jobs, housing and educational opportunities, these immigrants forged new economies catering to an eager market for legal and illicit recreational opportunities.
A 1917 Irene Kaufmann Settlement report notes that the Hill had 47 saloons, 46 pool rooms and 124 “disorderly houses.” Collectively, these establishments contributed to “the neighborhood’s delinquency,” the report’s authors wrote.
University of Buffalo ethnomusicologist and jazz guitarist Colter Harper literally wrote the book on Pittsburgh’s Crossroads of the World. In 2011, he wrote a University of Pittsburgh Ph.D. dissertation that explored the role that music played in helping to create the Hill’s entertainment district.
The Crossroads of the World, says Harper, “brings to mind a place of meeting between people from all walks of life and from a lot of different geographical origins.”
The beginning of the “Crossroads of the World”
“The actual phrase, Crossroads of the World, as far as I can tell, is something that started to show up in the ’40s,” Harper explains. “Then it’s taken on various lives with historical work referring to the Hill District in general and the intersection of Wylie and Fullerton specifically.”
That intersection is where Thomas and Martin Burke chose to open their businesses. They were the sons of Irish immigrants who arrived in Pittsburgh by way of Kentucky. Thomas was the older and both brothers owned saloons by 1900.
“Starting as a young ward politician, [Martin] Burke opened a saloon which he ran for 30 years,” Ohio’s Mansfield News Journal wrote after Burke’s 1923 murder. In a series of real estate purchases and saloon license applications, the Burkes helped to make the Wylie and Fullerton intersection a magnet for similar businesses.
The Burke brothers arrived at Wylie and Fullerton in about 1902. Before then, Martin had run a North Side saloon and Thomas had another one three blocks up Wylie, near Roberts Street. Their cornerstone properties included 1501-1505 Wylie and the Fulton Hotel at 57 Fullerton St. Later additions included another Wylie Avenue saloon and the Burke’s Theatre/Burke’s Hall building at 53-55 Fullerton Street.
Though most published histories of the Hill gloss over the Burkes, the Pittsburgh Courier published a remarkable summary of their early years at Wylie and Fullerton. “With the passing of Tommy, the pioneer Burkes are no more, and the race is better off,” the Courier wrote after Thomas died in December 1923. “For twenty years or more the brothers, Martin and Tommy, have been traffickers in liquor and keepers of saloons.”
The scathing column by John Clark went on to note that the Burkes gladly took advantage of Hill District Black residents by taking their money and serving them liquor but denying them bartending jobs in Burke saloons.
End of the Burke era
Martin Burke was the first to die in 1923. The 52-year-old had just been tried and convicted in an Ohio federal court on bootlegging charges. Prosecutors and the press dubbed Burke a “bootlegging king” and the mastermind of an interstate conspiracy to transport and sell alcohol. Burke pleaded guilty and the court gave him time to settle his affairs before reporting to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.
Burke spent Sunday, Jan. 14, 1923, discussing his businesses with nephew and partner Thomas Burke Jr. After the meeting ended, Martin’s chauffeur drove Thomas home. Around 6 p.m., Martin opened the door to his South Fairmount Avenue home and was shot twice and died at the scene. Law enforcement officials speculated that Burke’s partners assassinated him to ensure that the bootlegger wouldn’t provide evidence against them. Burke’s killers were never found.
Thomas Burke died in a less spectacular manner. After being ill for five months, he died at home on Dec. 21, 1923 at age 65.
Both Burkes left hefty estates, worth millions in today’s dollars. Thomas Burke Jr., a former Pittsburgh City Councilmember who was once implicated in a bribery scandal, took over their businesses.
The building he constructed at 53-55 Fullerton St. in 1914 remained a popular entertainment venue with one of the city’s earliest movie theaters on the first floor, a second-story dance hall, and a basement pool hall. In later years, leading up to urban renewal in the 1950s, the theater had been renamed the Rhumba Theatre. A popular nightclub, the Bambola Club, booked popular dance bands in the basement once occupied by the Williams brothers pool hall.
Alexander, Charles and Stanley Williams got their start in the basement of the Burke’s Theatre. Their business was so successful that they were able to rent a nearby vacant lot in 1920 and build a baseball stadium, the Central Amusement Park. After their ballpark failed five years later, Alexander stuck to what he knew best: running pool halls. Charles and Stanley went into the hospitality and entertainment business — at the Crossroads.
The Burke legacy at the Crossroads outlived the Burkes themselves. Some of Pittsburgh’s most memorable entertainment brands survived Prohibition and urban renewal. Stanley’s restaurant and lounge in Homewood may be the most enduring.
Welcome to Stanley’s
In 1933, Stanley Williams struck out on his own and opened the first iteration of Stanley’s at the Crossroads. It quickly became a popular Hill District destination booking local and national acts. Between 1933 and 1958, Stanley’s expanded into storefronts along Fullerton and Wylie, literally wrapping around the Crossroads.
Dolores Slater, now 95 and a lifelong Hill District resident, fondly recalls the original Stanley’s. That’s where her first husband, James Smith, worked as a bartender in the 1940s.
“The Crossroads of the World was Wylie Avenue and Fullerton Street crossing,” Slater says. “There was a filling station on one corner. There was the Blue Note on the other corner. There was Stanley’s cocktail lounge on the other corner. And Goode’s pharmacy. That’s why they called it Crossroads of the World.”
Pittsburgh Courier columnist John Clark wrote in 1958 that Williams, “had the unique distinction of operating three bars under the same roof.” Besides the bars, the location included a barbershop and a pool hall. Builder Saeed Akmal had designed and completed the 1940s remodeling project. Stanley’s had it all.
Plans for the first phase of urban renewal in the Lower Hill included the Crossroads. The properties tied to the Williams brothers and the Burkes were among the first to define the Crossroads of the World and they were among the first to be displaced.
Stanley’s was among the first businesses affected by urban renewal. On Aug. 10, 1957, the Courier reported “According to latest talk, Fullerton St. and Wylie Ave. will be as glamourless as a half-starved buzzard by the first of the year … Stanley Williams has closed his restaurant section, is advertising the sale of bar equipment, closed his barber shop, pool room and shoe shine stand.”
By 1962, the Burke legacy had all but disappeared when the Pittsburgh Courier published an illustrated retrospective on Black life in Pittsburgh. In a section dedicated to Wylie Avenue, the paper published a Charles “Teenie” Harris photo showing the Burke’s Theatre building (then renamed the Rhumba Theatre) in the 1950s. “Located on the second floor of the Rhumba Theatre … was Burke’s Hall,” the caption read. “The hall was located almost in the center of a growing Negro population.”
That center was the Crossroads of the World.