The former Sanders Inn roadhouse was renamed Blandi's in the 1930s by the family that later opened LeMont on Mount Washington. Photo courtesy of Tom Powers.

This summer Pittsburgh museums hit the open road via the Hill District with exhibits that tell the story of Black America’s complicated and sometimes fraught relationships with cars and travel. 

In its Car and Carriage Museum, the Frick Pittsburgh has mounted an exhibit that centers around the Great Migration and the roles that cars played in Pittsburgh and beyond. On loan from the Smithsonian Institution, The Negro Motorist Green Book exhibition at the Heinz History Center maps out Black America’s itinerary through major cities and sundown towns — communities that blocked Black residents via laws and violence. Finally, in Traveling While Black at 820 Gallery, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust uses multimedia to illuminate the safe places and perils Black travelers faced in Jim Crow America.

The Frick and History Center exhibits offer heavy doses of local Pittsburgh history focused on Hill District hotels, nightclubs and other Black-owned businesses. Each outing stays in a safe lane telling familiar stories. 

But there was a lot more to Black entertainment and hospitality that extended well beyond the Hill and even the city limits.

Between 1925 and 1950, a string of rural roadhouses and summer resorts encircled Pittsburgh. 

Bongiovanni’s Gardens in Hampton Township. Photo courtesy of the Pine Creek Land Conservation Trust.

Black bulbs in Pittsburgh’s bright light belt

When Prohibition began in January 1920, enterprising Pittsburghers headed for the hills (and river valleys) to open establishments where patrons could drink, dine and dance away from law enforcement’s prying eyes. 

Frank Bongiovanni, an Italian immigrant living in Beltzhoover, led the charge by opening Bongiovanni’s Gardens in Hampton Township. Since 1913, Bongiovanni had been the proprietor of Downtown’s Nixon Café. Newspapers a century ago credited him as pioneering cabaret entertainment in the city.

Others followed. Most were Italian, Jewish and German entertainment and hospitality entrepreneurs who bought or leased old farms in places like Cliff Mine in North Fayette Township and on Babcock Boulevard in Ross and McCandless townships.

Some of them, like Fred and Lilian Sanders, created popular concessions at existing facilities like the Oakmont Willows, before striking out on their own with a roadhouse near Aspinwall.

In later years, racketeers and their associates took advantage of the existing bright light belt — 20th-century slang for entertainment districts — surrounding Pittsburgh. Such popular nightclubs as the Ankara in Pleasant Hills found footholds catering to Pittsburgh mobsters and ordinary families. 

A grand opening advertisement for Charlotte Gardens published in the Pittsburgh Daily Post on Aug. 8, 1925.

A Ross Township mecca

Granville and Charlotte Googins were not part of that crowd, though.

Granville’s father, Lemuel Googins, became Pittsburgh’s first Black elected official in 1881 with his election to city council. The barber and real estate entrepreneur became one of the city’s wealthiest African Americans in the years bracketing the turn of the 20th century. Newspapers, Black and white, around the nation reported on Lemuel Googins’ fortune after he died in 1915: an estimated $200,000 ($6 million in 2023). 

In 1924, Granville and Charlotte, who which lived on Centre Avenue in the Hill District, bought a small lot on Babcock Boulevard in Ross Township, near the intersection of Thompson Run Road. There had been a roadhouse at the intersection since the late 1890s. 

According to newspaper accounts and the records of the Humane Society of Western Pennsylvania, that business had already established itself as the unofficial capital of illegal cockfighting in the area. The lot owned by the Googins was about 500 hundred feet north.

Virgil Dalton was a carpenter who worked for them in the 1920s.

“The first thing I did for them, I built a barbecue stand out here at that big roadhouse they had out in the country,” Dalton told an Allegheny County probate court in 1937. He later became their driver and caretaker for the roadhouse property.

First called Charlotte (sometimes spelled Charlott) Gardens, the roadhouse opened in the summer of 1925. It featured a 10-piece “Negro Jazz Orchestra” and Southern Creole cooking. Over the next few years, the Pittsburgh Courier reported on social events that Charlotte Googins hosted year-round at her “beautiful, spacious gardens.” Advertisements published in the Pittsburgh Press invited revelers to enjoy food, music and other entertainment “among beautiful flowers and foliage.”

Despite positive press coverage, Granville and Charlotte struggled to turn a profit at the club. In 1929, they leased it to veteran entertainment entrepreneurs Alfred and Lew Mercur and Joseph Rubin. The Mercur brothers later gained fame for running the Green Book-listed Harlem Casino on Centre Avenue in the Hill District. Rubin was a frontman for mob nightclubs throughout the city.

The new proprietors changed the name to Club Plantation and turned it into a Black and Tan club featuring Black musicians and mixed audiences. They also began serving liquor and attracted the attention of federal Prohibition agents. In June 1930, federal authorities declared the club a nuisance and began litigation to padlock it.

Granville and Charlotte Googins then filed their own lawsuit charging that the Mercurs and Rubin had stopped paying rent. They also claimed that the Mercurs and Rubin had violated the terms of their lease, which prohibited “unlawful, immoral or disorderly doings.”

Granville Googins died on Aug. 23, 1930. Charlotte Googins found new proprietors to run the roadhouse and it reopened as The Playaround in May 1931. Live music and dancing continued to be offered along with bowling alleys, a pool and a miniature golf course. Tragedy struck 10 days after it reopened when a fire destroyed the sprawling complex. Two firemen were injured and Dalton’s pit bull Pluto died. Also, two women who worked in the club sustained serious injuries.

Four years later, Charlotte Googins passed away. Relatives contested her $15,000 estate. Were it not for testimony offered in probate court, many details of the Googins roadhouse might have been lost like the club itself. 

A municipal water treatment facility now occupies the site.

The former Charlotte Gardens/Club Plantation site on Babcock Boulevard is now a municipal water treatment facility. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

A Washington County safe haven

Black Pittsburghers didn’t have to travel to Georgia or Mississippi to feel the sting of Jim Crow and racial violence. About the same time as Granville and Charlotte Googins were operating in Ross Township, Rube Wasler Jr. was getting into the music and sports promotion business in Washington County. Born in 1891, the World War I veteran had been stationed at Fort Lee in Virginia. There he honed his songwriting and singing skills. He also organized a band and promoted shows.

In 1927, Wasler began promoting dirt track car races north of Washington, Pa. His partners included Hill District bootlegger-turned-nightclub owner Gus Greenlee and jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton. 

The former Norris Beach roadhouse in Washington County. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Wasler came to the rescue of Black Pittsburghers after racial violence erupted at the Highland Park Pool. The city opened the pool on Aug. 31, 1931. It was Pittsburgh’s largest and most extravagant swimming facility. The day that the pool opened, Black residents were turned away. Whites attacked the African Americans who returned the following day.

The episode sparked more than 20 years of protests and litigation to integrate the pool. Historian Ralph Proctor Jr. describes the Highland Park Pool protests as the city’s first sustained civil rights campaign. 

“That became a sore point and people would talk about it and so when the challenge came, it was something that meant that we were finally doing something in the city of Pittsburgh to change what was going on,” Proctor explained in an interview earlier this year.

A grand opening advertisement for Norris Beach published in the Pittsburgh Courier on May 26, 1934.

In the spring of 1934, Wasler rented a private swimming resort and roadhouse that had opened in the 1920s. Located on the National Road about six miles east of Washington, it had operated as Glyde Beach before its owners ran into money problems. Wasler renamed it Norris Beach and invited Black Pittsburghers to “swim where you will be welcomed.”

Wasler booked prominent local and nationally touring bands, including Walter Barnes. In fact, the Barnes show planned for August 1934 was moved to the Hill District’s Pythian Temple (now the New Granada Theater) because of the anticipated large crowd. 

The sprawling site could accommodate 5,000 revelers from the entire region. “Autos from ten different states rolled down the smooth National highway and into the Beach parking lot,” the Pittsburgh Courier reported after one weekend’s festivities in 1935. 

No trolley lines and taxis served Norris Beach and it was 25 miles from the Hill. Pittsburgh residents who wanted to swim, dance or dine there had to drive their own cars or carpool. They could also board chartered buses in the Hill District for the trip. 

Did curators pass some destinations?

It’s easy to see why exhibit curators didn’t include establishments like Charlotte Gardens and Norris Beach. One reason is that Charlotte Gardens opened and closed several years before the The Negro Motorist Green Book was first published in 1936. Its first edition was limited to New York City. By 1938, the travelogue had expanded listings and was distributed nationwide. 

Heinz History Center curators didn’t look for establishments like the roadhouses. According to Samuel Black, the museum’s director of African American programs, the small gallery footprint, the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit script, and curatorial decisions limited the exhibit’s scope.

“We didn’t look at businesses like that,” Black explained when asked about businesses like the ones owned by Granville and Charlotte Googins and Rube Wasler Jr. “We looked at the listings that were in Pittsburgh. We didn’t look and see whether this particular establishment also had places outside the Hill.”

The 1938 Green Book had nine Pittsburgh listings for hotels and tourist homes. Two of them belonged to Hill District hotelkeeper Archie “Scott” Bailey. The West Virginia transplant owned two hotels. 

Bailey’s original lodgings on Wylie Avenue opened in the mid-1920s and a decade later he opened a men’s-only “stag” hotel on Centre Avenue. In 1932, the Pittsburgh Courier touted the Bailey Hotel as a “nice eating place” for “nice people” — in contrast to the Crawford Grill. The same 1932 column described it as, “the one place you can go and meet the sporting element, the musicians, the racketeers and the ‘gin’ hounds.”

Bailey’s was for “professionals,” wrote columnist Ted Yates, not gamblers and the hard-partying crowd.

But there was more to Bailey than his two Hill hotels. Long before the Green Book appeared, in the summer of 1932, Bailey rented land on Campbells Run Road near Carnegie and opened Bailey’s Roadhouse. It only lasted one season, but the nightclub located about 10 miles from the Hill became an overnight sensation.

“Bailey’s Roadhouse is ‘Hottest Place In Town,’” boasted the Pittsburgh Courier on June 18, 1932. Jazz pioneer Noble Sissle, a bandmate of James Reese Europe, played there, as did Earl Hines. Pianist Jimmy Lewis and vaudeville star and singer Ada Brown had regular gigs there. 

Bailey’s Roadhouse was just half a mile down the road from another joint, Phil’s Place. Owned by a white Carnegie hotelkeeper, it opened in 1931. Though Phil Hubacher was white, the Courier described his roadhouse as a “Mecca of Elite Summer Visitors.” 

Hubacher catered exclusively to Black patrons. The Courier regularly published features on events there and that’s where Hubacher advertised. 

Realizing that transportation to his club was an impediment to many city residents, Phil’s Place partnered with local cab companies to offer guaranteed round-trip travel for only $2 for six people; special buses to the club charged $1 per rider from East Liberty and 75 cents from Downtown Pittsburgh.

Advertisement for Phil’s Place published in the Pittsburgh Courier on June 11, 1932.

In his second and last year on Campbell’s Run Road, Hubacher brought Hill District’s Ulysses S. Dearing into the business to cater meals. In 1930, Dearing opened Dearing’s Hotel on Wylie Avenue. “U.S. Dearing, the man whose name is synonymous with class and quality when one speaks of restaurant owners, will move into new, attractive and spacious quarters,” wrote the Pittsburgh Courier in 1930.

Like Bailey, Dearing advertised in the Green Book. 

Also in 1932, Hubacher hired Wasler to program that year’s Fourth of July festivities which included national touring and recording artists Taylor’s Dixie Serenaders and the Masters of Hot Rhythm. “Hear them afternoon and evening at Phil’s dancing pavilion,” the Pittsburgh Courier promised.

Charlotte Gardens, Norris Beach and the other roadhouses all disappeared long ago. Yet, their legacies as Black entertainment and recreational venues that relied on the automobile cannot be overlooked. Their stories, located well off history’s beaten path, complement the ones told in this summer’s exhibitions.

David S. Rotenstein is a historian, folklorist, and award-winning freelance writer. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and he writes about urban history, race, and the history of organized crime in Pittsburgh.