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National Negro Opera Company House Named One Of The Most Endangered Places In U.S.


There's a house that sits on top of a hill in Pittsburgh. The windows are boarded up. The roof is falling in. But once it was a bustling hub of Black art and culture. Today the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of 11 of the most endangered historic places in the U.S. because, as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, it was home to a pioneer of Black opera.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: It's a Victorian-style house - three stories, an asymmetrical design, with a steeple at the top and a wraparound porch.

JONNET SOLOMON: It's a gorgeous structure, but the energy within the house was just amazing.

LIMBONG: Jonnet Solomon bought the house in 2000 with her late friend Miriam White. Solomon was just driving around one day when she came upon it. Back then, the porch was still intact, and it had these beautiful stained-glass windows. She saw a plaque out front talking about the building's history.

SOLOMON: And the next few days, I started asking people, do you know about this house in - on Apple Street? And no one knew about it. So that week, I said, I'm going to buy the house.

LIMBONG: It was built in 1894. By the 1930s, it was owned by a guy named Woogie Harris, who ran an illegal lottery, a numbers racket, and acted as a bank of sorts for the Black community in Pittsburgh. The house is huge, more of a mansion. It had an entire ballroom on the third floor. So Harris let a music teacher named Mary Cardwell Dawson move in.

KAREN BRYAN: Her goal, ultimately, was to make it a community opera center.

LIMBONG: That's Karen Bryan, professor of musicology at the University of South Florida and author of an upcoming book about Mary Cardwell Dawson. In 1941, Dawson started the National Negro Opera Company out of the house. She took the company across the country - New York, Chicago, D.C. - and by Karen Bryan's count, Dawson put 1,800 individuals on stage.

BRYAN: Providing this access for as many people as possible and the opportunity for as many people as possible to get on the stage and perform and to realize their ambitions - that is one of the legacies you can point to with her.

LIMBONG: Over the years, Dawson watched over singers who'd go on to have significant careers, like La Julia Rhea, Napoleon Reed, Robert McFerrin. She gave lessons to noted jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. The company itself folded after 21 years, but Jonnet Solomon would like the legacy to continue. When she bought the house, she'd planned to open a music school and a small space for burgeoning performers.

SOLOMON: We did not want to do anything different than what was already happening in the house, which was culture, art, music, fun - which is just lacking these days. But we wanted to just bring back that liveliness to the community.

LIMBONG: But it's going to take a lot of work, much more than Solomon had originally thought. Matthew Craig is executive director for the Young Preservationists Association in Pittsburgh.

MATTHEW CRAIG: Well, I'm surprised it's still with us. But that it is still with us lets me believe that it's a pretty strong and pretty well-built house. So we do have some time, but we don't have forever.

LIMBONG: The hope is by having the house on the most endangered historic places list, it'll bring some attention from local community members who'll want to help save it - not just to preserve its story, but to keep it going.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGEL OLSEN SONG, "SPRING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
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