The Fight to Preserve Forgotten Rich Black History

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Mystery Manor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Wikipedia
Mystery Manor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Wikipedia

A dilapidated façade betrays the rich historical significance held within the walls of a Pittsburgh estate. Mystery Manor sits at the top of a hill on Apple Street in Homewood, a predominantly Black, lower income neighborhood. Homewood at the turn of the 20th century was a beacon for ethnic whites and upper middle class Blacks, drawn in by the affordable housing.

William “Woogie” Harris, brother of legendary photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris purchased the home in 1930 and turned it into a party house for Hollywood’s Black elite. It eventually became a boarding house for pre-civil rights era performers, who were banned from nearby lodgings. Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughn famously rented apartments there. Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente and heavyweight champion boxer Joe Louis frequented the grounds. The famed comings and goings gave rise to its moniker: Mystery Manor. The manor also served as headquarters for the National Negro Opera Company, the first African-American opera company in the United States.

Company founder Mary Cardwell Dawson auditioned and rehearsed classical singers from an office and studios on the home’s third floor. Though the company relocated to Washington, DC in 1951, Dawson continued to use the building for company business until her death in 1962.

Historical archivists and conservationists have fought for years to preserve the priceless, 7000-square foot piece of history.

Jonnet Solomon, a Guyanese immigrant, bought the house for just that purpose in 2007. She paid just $18,000.

“I wanted to do a service project for Pittsburgh,” Solomon told Curbed.com. “Saving a historic landmark seemed like a great project to me.”

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission deemed the home a historic structure in 1994 and it became a Pittsburgh City Historic Landmark in 2008. In 2013, the Young Preservationists of Pittsburgh listed the property as one of the city’s Top 10 preservation possibilities. Still, Solomon and countless others have failed to raise funds necessary to transform the decaying home into a suitable space and breathe life back into the surrounding neighborhood economy.

Historians say the town’s African American treasures are just not a priority for Pittsburgh officials, who have a history of turning the city’s Black landmarks into lots and roads.

Pittsburgh was home to multiple Black nightclubs and bars during the 20s and 30s. For those who couldn’t travel to Harlem in New York City, Pittsburgh venues were a welcome substitute.

Prohibition speakeasies and underground lotteries were easy money for enterprising Black millionaires, who couldn’t secure a loan at any bank in the city. Experts say African Americans thrived economically and culturally during, giving rise to the Harlem Renaissance and similar artistic explosions throughout the United States.

John Brewer runs the Trolley Station Oral History Center at the Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum in Homewood.

Brewer told the Post-Gazette Pittsburgh’s wealthy Black citizens, like Woogie Harris, played “numbers” for survival.

“The African-American community was a community isolated to itself,” Brewer said. “African-Americans were not working at Kaufmann’s or Gimbels or Horne’s. The banks weren’t giving out 3 percent loans. They were not addressing any financial needs. People had to do what they had to do to survive. The numbers game provided jobs. These gentlemen perpetuated the financial structure of the African-American community.”

Brewer estimated 90 percent of local businesses were financed by “numbers” and Harris’s, which employed up to 4000 people at one time, provided him with the money to purchase Mystery Manor in the first place.

Manor homeowner Solomon said she has no plans to give up on the renovation and continues to meet with private investors in hopes of preserving the invaluable benchmark.

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