Filed Under Culture

August Wilson House

Inspiring "The Pittsburgh Cycle"

This Bedford Avenue dwelling was the childhood home of the playwright known as "theater's poet of Black America."

Early Life

The man known to us today as August Wilson was born Fredrick August Kittel in 1945. The su name came from his red-haired German father, Fredrick Kittel, a baker from Bohemia. His mother was Daisy Wilson, an African American whose parents had migrated from North Carolina. Wilson and his six siblings lived in the two-room (later four-room) apartment at 1727 Bedford Avenue until 1958, when August was 13.

Wilson's childhood friend and schoolmate at Holy Trinity Catholic School, Sala Udin, described him as shy but perceptive. "August would never raise his hand in class to give the answer, but if a nun called on him, he usually knew the answer," recalled Udin. "He didn't participate in rough physical games on the schoolyard, but he always watched, with a sly smile on his face."

August's father was only in the home intermittently. Education was extremely important to Daisy Wilson, and August enrolled as the first black student in Central Catholic High School. Daily threats and abuse drove him to Connelley Vocational High School in the Hill, but August found it unchallenging; he would later attend Gladstone High School. Wilson later reflected on the story behind his final dropout in the 10th grade: "I wrote a paper about 20 pages long, on Napoleon. He was one of my heroes. I went to the library, got the books, wrote it, and turned it in. The teacher asked to see me after school, and he handed me the paper. There were two grades listed on it: A+ and E. Now, he said to me, 'You've got a sister in college, right? Well, I don't think you wrote this. Now, tell me, what grade should you have?' Of course, I said 'A+' and so he circled E. I took the paper, tore it up, and dropped it in the waste can, walked out of Gladstone, and never went back."

He would later return to the Hill and adopt his mother's maiden name. The newly branded August Wilson educated himself in the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh. In the 1960s, he began to consider himself a poet and befriended other black writers such as Rob Penny. They hung out at Irv's Bar in the Hill District, and Wilson began to write plays based on conversations he overheard around his neighborhood. He joined Black nationalist groups and founded the Black Horizons theater with his writer friends.

Like most people, I have this sort of love-hate relationship with Pittsburgh. This is my home, and at times I miss it and find it tremendously exciting, and other times I want to catch the first thing out that has wheels.
-August Wilson
After his mother's death, August Wilson's career took off. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his play "Fences" in 1987, something he would win again for his play "The Piano Lesson" in 1989. Overall, Wilson would write 10 plays in 24 years, 9 of which are set in the Hill District. These plays would later be known as "The Pittsburgh Cycle," with each play set in a different decade. Freda Ellis, August Wilson's sister, wrote of his plays: "In the struggle to realize the American dream, blacks have lost their identity. This is one of the issues raised in August's plays: How does a black man become a successful American without sacrificing his real culture and the richness of his identity?"

The House Before August

The building that one day would serve as the birthplace of August Wilson was originally built in the 1840s. The brick structure featured a storefront and several apartments. As August Wilson was born, the building belonged to Beatrice (Bella) and Louis Siger, a Jewish couple who operated a market out of the front and rented the spaces in the back and upstairs. Bella would let Wilson's sisters work in the store from time to time. In the front apartment of the house lived the Buteras, an Italian-American family who operated the watch repair shop next door. The last Buteras resident to be born in the house was Johnny Buteras in 1915. He would refer to August as "Little Freddie Kittel."

The Pittsburgh Connection

August Wilson moved away from Pittsburgh, first to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978 and later Seattle, Washington, in 1990. However, while moving further physically away from his native Pittsburgh, his mind remained in the Hill District. In 1996, Wilson's play, "Seven Guitars," premiered on Broadway and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award. The backyard of 1727 Bedford Avenue is, in fact, the setting for "Seven Guitars."

Wilson's friend and fellow Hill District writer, Rob Penny, wrote of Wilson's relationship to his city: "August always had a strong sense of history. He feels we can all learn from the past so we can improve the future. I think Pittsburgh's history has been very, very important to him. The city is a puzzle, a disjointed place with all the different ethnic groups going their separate ways. But everything that is America exists here, from the artistic beauty to the ugliness. It's all had an effect on August."

The Fight to Save The August Wilson House

August Wilson died from liver cancer in 2005 at age 60. Soon afterward, several projects began in Pittsburgh to honor him and his legacy. The project to save 1727 Bedford Avenue was spearheaded by his nephew, an attorney, Paul Ellis. Ellis was concerned that "demolition of other historic landmarks has been done without a reverent analysis of black history" By 2008, the home was in great disrepair, the lot next door was vacant, and the watch shop on the other side sat empty after Johnny Buteras had been killed in a robbery in 2001.

In 2008, Pittsburgh's City Council unanimously voted to declare historic status for the home. Paul Ellis and his nonprofit, The Daisy Wilson Artist Community, had a plan to turn the home into a writers' retreat: complete with a shop, a museum, and living accommodations. Ellis's nonprofit and volunteers from "Renew Pittsburgh" began to clean up the property and stabilize the structural stability of the house, described as "the first step in a $2 million-dollar project." Thanks to these efforts, the house joined the National Register of Historic Places in 2013 and received a historic marker sign out front. Today, the Daisy Wilson Artist Community - with funding from passionate Wilson fans such as Denzel Washington - is working to complete their dream of completely restoring the building for community applications while hosting community parties and artistic events.

Images

Exterior of the Wilson House The August Wilson House prior to its designation as a historic site. Source: Wikimedia Commons Date: November 26, 2007
Selection from 1923 Sanborn insurance map Arrow indicates the building at 1727 Bedford. Surnames listed on adjacent properties include those of German, Irish, Arabic and Italian origin, reflecting the ethnic diversity of the Hill in this period period. Date: 1923
August Wilson The header of a Post-GazetteĀ article lauding Wilson's theatrical accomplishments. Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Date: February 23, 1997

Location

1727 Bedford Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Metadata

Zach Cene, “August Wilson House,” Hill District Digital History, accessed May 29, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/15.