Ex-cons learn trade turning August Wilson’s childhood home into arts space
August Wilson’s boyhood home served as inspiration for Pulitzer Prize winning plays, and he would have appreciated that ex-cons are helping transform the dilapidated structure into an artists’ workshop, his nephew said.
The nonprofit Daisy Wilson Artist Community, which owns the house on Bedford Avenue, contracted with a Homewood-based masonry company that, along with an affiliate, trains and puts former prisoners to work. Over the past few weeks Shelton Building Associates, an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Trade Institute, has rebuilt the crumbling brick facade and done interior framing.
The $46,000 project includes a $23,000 matching state historical grant.
“I know that it’s something that my uncle would have approved of,” said Paul A. Ellis Jr., Wilson’s nephew and a Downtown attorney who is the nonprofit’s president and executive director.
Ellis has worked for years to restore the house in memory of his late uncle, who lived there until age 12.
Wilson’s play “Seven Guitars” is set in the backyard, and two others — “Fences” and “Gem of the Ocean” — include references to people who once operated shops in the house and in a house next door. The Artist Community owns the neighboring house.
The two 19th-century structures are classic examples from the neighborhood, some of which Pittsburgh demolished in the 1950s to make way for construction of the Civic Arena, said Jeff Slack, a preservation planner with Pfaffmann and Associates, a Downtown architecture firm. The company provided conceptual plans for the renovation.
“It will become a community arts space,” Slack said. “This is all about providing opportunities for the community that don’t exist now.”
Plans include work and gallery space for artists, living space for a visiting artist and incorporating neighboring vacant lots to host outside events and parking spaces.
Ellis said his immediate goal is to raise money to finish the brickwork, perform rewiring and install heating and air conditioning.
Steve Shelton, who founded the Pittsburgh Trade Institute to train former inmates, said the building is a job training opportunity.
“Now we have two dudes who were in jail a year ago laying brick on August Wilson’s house,” Shelton said.
Duane Green, 37, who served three years in prison on drug charges, understands the significance.
“Working here is very special,” he said. “It feels as if we’re giving back to the community.”
Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or [email protected].