Negro Opera Birthplace Rescued By A Visionary With Preservation Goal

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Rich Pittsburgh musical history is in the bones of this building, where the National Negro Opera Company was founded. Jonnet Solomon, seen here in 2009, has led a long effort to secure the home’s cultural legacy. (Youtube.com)

PITTSBURGH — Few people would have even noticed the abandoned, dilapidated Queen Anne-style building on Apple Street in Homewood, a predominately Black neighborhood of Pittsburgh, but the blue and gold historical marker outside it caught Jonnet Solomon’s attention. By chance, she had happened upon the former headquarters of the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC), founded by Mary Cardwell Dawson in 1941. Preserving the structure, which had been vacant for decades when she first saw it in 2000, seemed like a fool’s errand to many, but that never deterred Solomon.

Dreaming is not just a sideline for Solomon, who trained as a tax accountant. She is the executive director of the Steel City Arts Initiative, a community-based agency dedicated to providing cultural, arts, and education programs geared towards empowering school-age children and their families. Upon immigrating from Guyana in 1984, Solomon’s parents chose to settle in Pittsburgh, as it was ranked the best place in the U.S. to raise a family. Her father, Phil Solomon, is a steel pan builder, composer, and steel band arranger. The steel pan that he made for his daughter as a sixteenth birthday gift is in the Steel City Arts Initiative offices on Pittsburgh’s North Side.

Solomon wasn’t the only person inspired by the story of the house on Apple Street. Mariam White, who together with Solomon bought the house in 2000 for $18,000, was a former beautician who knew the names of the famous people who had stayed in the house — singers Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan, boxer Joe Louis, baseball player Roberto Clemente, jazz greats Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Billy Eckstine. At that time it was known as a safe house where Black entertainers and sports figures could stay when they weren’t welcome in most hotels long after Dawson moved the NNOC to Washington, D.C., in 1942.

The late John Brewer Jr., a local historian and author, assisted Solomon in gathering everything that existed about the history of the house and the NNOC. Through their efforts, the company’s records are now housed at the Library of Congress, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Museum Archives, and the Senator John Heinz History Center. Funding is needed to digitize the more than 12,000 documents.

Solomon spoke to everyone she could who knew anything about the house, but a local Pittsburgh musician, Peggy Pierce Freeman, was one of the few people with a direct link to Dawson and the NNOC. Freeman began taking piano lessons with Dawson when she was nine years old. She listened to other students’ lessons, including Freddy Jones, who would later be known as the renowned jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. Freeman’s hope was that the house would be restored before she died, but that was not to be.

Among the many artists who sang with the company was Robert McFerrin (top right), father of contemporary vocalist Bobby McFerrin. (LOC archives)

Pittsburgh architect Milton Ogot, who specializes in historic preservation and restoration, has also been involved with the preservation efforts from the beginning. He and Solomon are the only two still living of those that originally rallied around the cause, “the keepers of the flame,” as Solomon puts it. The flame is now burning brighter than any of them could have imagined.

In October 2020, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the building on its list of the eleven most endangered historic sites in America. Then, in April 2021, the Richard King Mellon Foundation made a $500,000 gift to help save the building.

In announcing the gift, Mellon foundation director Sam Reiman expressed the hope that it would “inspire other Pittsburgh community leaders — and leaders across the nation — to support Jonnet in this noble quest.” Pittsburgh Opera answered the call. Christopher Hahn, the company’s general director, who admires Solomon’s foresight, drive, and determined vision, stated that Pittsburgh Opera shares her “goals of restoring the house to its former grandeur and making it once again a thriving community asset and assisting her in whatever ways she needs.” The Opera has provided support through grant writing, public relations to create greater awareness of the project, and acting as her temporary fiscal sponsor. As the restoration project moves along, Hahn hopes to partner with Solomon and others on programming for the house and finding “a multitude of ways for it to engage the broader community.”

Logitech, a Swiss company that designs products that bring people together through music, gaming, video, and computing, has taken Solomon’s efforts to the next level digitally. Equally important, Logitech has indicated that it wants to be involved with the restoration of the house.

Grammy and Emmy award-winning mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves reached out to Solomon before any of the other support materialized. Graves had visited the house in 2017, when she was in Pittsburgh Opera’s production of The Summer King, an opera by Daniel Sonenberg based on the life of baseball legend Josh Logan. But she had forgotten about it. Her memory was jogged in December 2020 when Glimmerglass Festival artistic director and general director Francesca Zambello called to ask if she was interested in starring in a one-woman play with music, The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, at the festival the following summer.

Almost simultaneously, Graves saw a post of soprano Chantal Braziel singing on the steps of the house and learned that it was on the verge of collapse. Graves and Braziel knew each other from The Summer King and the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019-20 production of Porgy and Bess. Graves contacted Solomon, who recalls that connection as “the best thing in the world that could have happened.”

Opera visionary Mary Cardwell Dawson died in 1962. (Library of Congress archive)

In the weeks that followed, Graves learned everything that she could about Dawson and the NNOC, which led to the formation of The Denyce Graves Foundation. The NNOC is its first philanthropic project. Graves traveled to Pittsburgh in April to film an episode of Cooking with Denyce, her online show, and meet with local foundation heads about the NNOC and again visited the house.

Graves says she is inspired by Dawson, who was denied a career of her own because of her race but went on to establish her own opera company and foster the careers of many others. She expresses a responsibility to further Dawson’s legacy and honor a woman who was all but written out of history, but for the efforts of a handful of people.

Solomon stresses that it is essential for the community to get behind her efforts to preserve the house on Apple Street. For the project to be a success, she says, people in the community need to know how and why they are connected to not only the house but also the envisioned educational activities and programs, which are important to children who don’t have music and art at school. It’s all about “continuing the work of Mary Cardwell Dawson,” Solomon says.

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