Filed Under Culture

New Granada Theater

A Pillar of Pittsburgh Black Culture

In the heart of the Hill District stands a time-worn monument, witness to a vibrant history and home to an exciting future.

The New Granada, located in the Hill District at 2007 Centre Avenue, tells a story that is still being created today. The three-story building has served various roles in the community throughout the decades. From ballroom dancing, star-studded music performances, weekly cinematic features, and community events, all have taken place at this site, serving as an "icon" for the Hill District then and now.

The New Granada has an evolving history that begins with prominent African American architect, Louis Bellinger. He was one of only sixty black architects in the United States in the 1930s. One of his most prominent works and also one of the few still standing, is the building of the New Granada Theater. The building first opened in 1927 as the Pythian Temple for the fraternal order, the Colored Knights of Pythias. This organization served numerous roles for its members. For example, they were the only social organization at the time to offer life insurance, which aided families after a member's death. Under their ownership, the Knights of Pythias hosted live music and community events. The architectural vision Bellinger constructed for the Pythian Temple led to the iconic New Granada Theater. The Pythian Temple was bought by Henry Hendel after the Knights struggled to make mortgage payments.

Bellinger's designs allowed for the Pythian Temple to easily be transformed into the New Granada Theater by architect Alfred M. Marks. He redesigned the first floor from a banquet hall to a commercial movie theater. On May 20, 1937, the building reopened as The New Granada Theater. "When the beautiful new Granada theater threw open its doors last Thursday evening, a huge crowd jammed the sidewalks and streets... Men, women, and children ogled and marveled at the beauty and elegance of the interior," and "all races and colors filled up the ticket booth." While the theater did occasionally show popular white movies like Casablanca, it was well-known for mostly playing films with African American-led casts, something that was not common at the time. The theater showed a variety of genres from musicals to dramas. The building was also welcoming to all. "A cross-section of Pittsburghers, white and black, middle class, and working poor, attended both 'sepia cinema' or black films starring African American movie stars." The movie theater wasn't the only entertainment that drew in large crowds. The second floor of the New Granada continued the traditions of the Pythian Temple by hosting live music events.

On the second floor, patrons were transported to a magnificent ballroom stage "where the jazz greats played. The ballroom had indirect lighting, beautiful Venetian blinds, colorful drapes, wall murals, and a revolving crystal ball." Harlem music, a form of jazz, was a staple for the period. Harlem music itself shaped parts of the Hill District culture. This style of jazz music was developed in Harlem, New York, in the early 1900s. Due to the differing racial and economic differences in New York City, the area of Harlem became known as a "city-within-the-city" of New York City. This description can be correlated with the Hill District, as it too can be seen as a "city-within-the-city" in comparison to Pittsburgh. Harlem musicians touring from New York City to Chicago would make a stop along the way in Pittsburgh to play on the second floor of the New Granada.

The second floor housed the Hill City Auditorium and then later changed to the Savoy Ballroom. The Harlem singers were popular in the area but were not the only style of entertainment the Savoy Ballroom saw. Local bands, singers, and orchestras played there as well. They also used the space to host jitterbug contests. The stage at the New Granada attracted well-known jazz stars as well as local performers.

The New Granada Theater provided a variety of entertainment for Pittsburgh but also was a staple for residents of the Hill District. The building was often used for civic and community engagement. The space housed high school proms and graduations but also worked to "combat juvenile delinquency." The Hill City Youth Municipality was an organization that worked to prevent crime but also worked to serve and "uplift the underprivileged girls and boys of the community." In June of 1939, this organization hosted programs persuading residents to aid in "eliminating conditions that lead to crime and delinquency." They ended the week of events by showing a celebratory film in the New Granada Theater.

Although the New Granada Theater was a packed place at its height, its popularity and clientele eventually began to wither. The theater had to close its doors in the 1970s. It was purchased by the Hill CDC in 1990. The site became listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. Throughout the years since the Hill CDC purchased the New Granada, efforts have been taken to revitalize the historic site but progress has halted numerous times. More recently, new plans have been created to revitalize the Hill District as a whole, and the New Granada Theater has taken center stage of those plans.

Images

Street View of the New Granada The exterior of the New Granada Theater. A marquee advertises "Air condition for your comfort," a luxury that persuaded patrons to come in on a hot summer day to watch a film. A second marquee sign says “see pictures on our big screen.” Movie posters line the front of the building, displaying features or films coming soon. Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1957-1965
New Granada Today The exterior of the New Granada as it stands today. The theater is currently under construction, as it is part of a revitalization project to restore entrainment to the Hill District. Source: 90.5 WESA Creator: Jillian Forsadt Date: May 16, 2023
New Granada grand opening Pittsburgh Courier article showcasing the opening of the New Granada Theater. The article reported that, "Men, women and children ogled and marveled at the beauty and elegance of the interior and the smartness of the personnel." Shown in the images are patrons, performers in the dressing room, and ushers lining up for a night of work. The feature reporter also took note that "all races and colors filed up to the ticket booth." Source: Pittsburgh Courier Date: May 22, 1937
Black Artistry The New Granada Theater often showcased African American-starred movie productions. Above are some scenes from the movie “Life Goes On.” In a time of segregation in the United States, The New Granada Theater was a space that welcomed and encouraged African American productions; this particular film was a crime drama produced by Million Dollar Production, which created films with African American casts. Source: Pittsburgh Courrier Date: February 12, 1938
Cavalcade of Jazz Advertisement A Post-Gazette newspaper advertisement for a night of music and dancing at the New Granada. Jazz was a popular genre that often played in the Savoy Ballroom, located on the second-floor of the theater. During the height of its popularity, jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and numerous local artists took center stage at the New Granada. Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Date: April 7, 1947
Civic Engagement at the New Granada The New Granada Theater was known as place for entertainment and live music, but it also offered support to the community. The Hill City Youth Municipality had offices in the building. This group worked to prevent crime and help young underprivileged by showing films, hosting dances, and providing cooking classes. Source: Pittsburgh Courier Date: June 3, 1939

Location

2007 Centre Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Metadata

Hanna Brandebura, “New Granada Theater,” Hill District Digital History, accessed June 17, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/8.