PITTSBURGH – The Richard King Mellon Foundation today announced that it has made a $500,000 gift to help save the former National Negro Opera Company House in Homewood – a once-proud national landmark that has been vacant 50 years and is dangerously close to collapse.
“This property once was the center of Black cultural life in Pittsburgh, and a national artistic destination,” said Foundation Director Sam Reiman. “The National Negro Opera Company – the first permanent African-American opera company in the nation – called it home. And it was a safe house for great musicians, such as Cab Calloway, Lena Horne and Duke Ellington, and for visiting athletes, such as heavyweight champion Joe Louis and our own Roberto Clemente.
“But the property has been vacant for half a century, and now is dangerously close to becoming unsalvageable. The National Trust for Historic Preservation rightly has named it one of the most endangered historic places in the nation. Jonnet Solomon took the first and most important step, buying the property to save it from demolition. But now she needs help – and not just to save it, but to make it special once again, converting it into a self-guided museum, with powerful programming for disadvantaged young artists of today.
“The Foundation is hoping its initial gift will inspire other Pittsburgh community leaders – and leaders across the nation – to support Jonnet in this noble quest. Together, we can save a landmark before it’s too late. We can help young artists today to find a welcoming place again. And we can bolster Homewood’s ongoing efforts to return to its rightful place as a cultural and community hub.”
“This has been a 20-year, life-altering labor of love,” said Solomon, an accountant by profession who purchased the Queen Anne-style house, with the late Miriam White, in 2000. “And I’m more hopeful now than ever that we can preserve this historic house, and make it an artistic hub for the community once again. This gift is the catalyst that will inspire others to do the same.”
The house first rose to national significance in the 1940s, when opera singer Mary Cardwell Dawson rented space there for the National Negro Opera Company. The company disbanded in the 1960s.
Solomon’s vision of saving the property and restoring it to new vital uses requires more than $2 million. Solomon has launched a website to tell the story of the home’s history and future vision, and to raise funds. The story has captivated national attention. But donations have been sparse.
So the Foundation stepped in to get things started.
Grammy and Emmy award winning mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, along with her team and a network of singers,also have been highly instrumental in the attention being given to the National Negro Opera House. “I feel a great obligation to this important monument of American history that has been so long neglected,” she wrote in a fundraising appeal to fellow artists. Graves founded The Denyce Graves Foundation to support projects like this. Raising funds and national awareness for the National Opera House is the foundation’s first philanthropic project.
The Richard King Mellon Foundation’s $500,000 grant will go through Pittsburgh Opera, which is assisting Solomon with the effort and serving as fiscal sponsor for the Foundation’s grant.
“Pittsburgh Opera is working as a key collaborator in developing the artistic programming that will be based in the renovated facility to celebrate the rich operatic history of our region and to fulfill the dream of Mary Cardwell Dawson by providing opportunities for children in Pittsburgh most affected by racial inequalities in education and the arts,” said Christopher Hahn, Pittsburgh Opera’s General Director.
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About the Richard King Mellon Foundation
Founded in 1947, the Richard King Mellon Foundation is the largest foundation in southwestern Pennsylvania, and one of the 50 largest in the world. The Foundation’s projected 2020 year-end endowment was $3.1 billion, and its Trustees in 2020 awarded grants and Program Related Investments totaling $130 million. The Foundation focuses its funding on six primary program areas, delineated in its 2021-2030 Strategic Plan.
About Pittsburgh Opera
Pittsburgh Opera celebrates its 82nd season in 2020-21. Established by five intrepid women in 1939, Pittsburgh Opera is viewed as one of the most vibrant opera organizations in the U.S., with a rich artistic tradition, outstanding educational programs, an acclaimed artist training program, and a progressive outlook toward the future. Its green initiative culminated in LEED® Silver certification for its Strip District headquarters, and its capacity as a true community partner has increased significantly under General Director Christopher Hahn’s leadership.