From the front yard, the run-down Queen Anne-style mansion at 7101 Apple Street in Pittsburgh appears to have its best days behind it, much like the surrounding, predominantly African-American Homewood neighborhood. Most of the 72 windows on the three-story structure are boarded up. The wraparound porch is buckling, and stucco is chipping off the wall. Hearing owner Jonnet Solomon describe the litany of break-ins that have occurred over the last few decades is like listening to an archeologist recall the splendor of an ancient temple sacked by vandals centuries ago.
The list of missing pieces of the roughly 7,000-square-foot home’s interior is extensive: an iron beam, hand-carved mantles, chandeliers, antique door knobs, copper lanterns and pipes were all removed by salvagers and robbers. The wood that lined the entire second floor was stripped and stolen.
But while many physical mementos are gone, the memories of the home still linger. After all, Solomon knew when she purchased the home in 2000 that she was buying the Mystery Manor. There’s rarely a day when she’s at the house and neighbors don’t walk by and tell her some new story: It was a celebrity haunt, attracting musical stars and boxing champs; parties propelled by the generosity and charisma of owner and raconteur "Woogie" Harris were legendary; the National Negro Opera company had its offices inside (the reason it’s also known as the Negro Opera House); and urban legend suggests ownership of the city’s NFL franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers, was won in a card game in the Mystery Manor’s basement.
"It was like The Great Gatsby," says Solomon. "Count Basie would be playing the piano, Lena Horne would be singing, and Roberto Clemente might be standing next to you. People arrived in the fanciest cars of the day, in furs and white gloves, and wouldn’t leave until 7 a.m."
While the Mystery Manor has a glamorous reputation, it also represents a lost era of Pittsburgh’s African-American history, one that advocates and preservationists have struggled to preserve. A marker out front that tells visitors they are standing in front of the original home of the National Negro Opera company only tells a fraction of the story. It, too, has previously been stolen.
From the ‘30s to the ‘50s, this home was a center of African-American society, arts, and culture. At a time when black Americans were barred from most lodging and accommodations, it served as a waystation for travelers, artists, and athletes (a celebrated symbol of baseball’s slow shift toward desegregation, Roberto Clemente, spent some of the ‘50s living here, along with members of the Steelers). Owner William "Woogie" Harris used profits from his underground lottery to provide business loans to blacks barred from access to banks and standard credit lines.
"You can argue it may be one of the most historic properties in the area," says Matthew Craig, Executive Director of the Young Preservationists Association.
But arguments, even well-supported ones, have yet to save this home. Craig, Jonnet, and many other organizations and preservationists have tried for decades to renovate the home, and even turn it into a museum and community arts center to serve as a catalyst for the struggling Homewood area.
But despite the home’s incredible influence and history, they haven’t been able to raise the funds. Their struggle speaks to many issues facing historic properties such as this, located in economically challenged areas that can make fundraising and preservation more difficult.
"Pittsburgh itself has not preserved black historic locations," says Samuel Black, Director of African-American Programs at the city’s Heinz History Center. "Most of these stories are now buried under parking lots or freeways. It’s going to be a hard sell, since it hasn’t necessarily been on the consciousness of many people, and there are so many other primary concerns the city looks at beyond the Opera House. Since it’s privately owned, it needs to be privately financed."
The home known as Mystery Manor was built in 1894 on a hilly stretch of land on what was known as Spencer Street. According to local historian John Brewer, author of a forthcoming book Kingpins of Pittsburgh, the area was called the Spencer Street Slip because of the steep incline. Filled with wide streets and grand homes, it was also a playground for the rich during the early part of the 20th century (a racing track was located up the hill, as well as a tiny six-hole golf course), befitting an area where industrial titans George Westinghouse and Andrew Carnegie had once owned estates in the 1870s.
By the ‘20s and ‘30s, the area had become more diverse, both in income and race, with pioneering blacks such as Robert Vann, owner of the Pittsburgh Courier Newspaper, settling in the area. The 17-room home became a local landmark in the African-American community when it was purchased by William "Woogie" Harris for $14,000 in the early ‘30s.
Harris, one of the city’s first black millionaires, drove a stylish Duesenberg car around town and was known for introducing numbers, or an underground lottery, to Pittsburgh. Along with his partner William Augustus "Gus" Greenlee, who also owned the Crawford Grill and the Pittsburgh Crawfords Negro League Baseball Team, he functioned as a wealthy powerbroker in the black community.
While they were running an illegal enterprise, and were arrested numerous times, they also became key financiers for minority-owned businesses, especially in the nearby Hill District. Harris’s brother, Teenie, who would go on to become a respected photographer who captured everyday scenes of black life, among other subjects, opened his shop in the Hill thanks to his brother’s funding.
During an intra-war period when African-Americans were experiencing upward mobility and better economic opportunities, Harris and Greenlee became a bank of sorts. They certainly had the capital; in 1931, a heavily-played number was called and generated a $250,000 payout.
"The Pittsburgh African-American community during those years was incredibly culturally alive," says Louise Lippincott, a curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art. "The jazz music scene, the opera company, two baseball teams, basketball, boxing. The performing arts and sports were fantastic."
The community was also still suffering under discriminatory housing and lodging laws and practices, which made Woogie’s property (he mostly lived in a different home in the Penn Hills neighborhood) an ideal spot for African-American celebrities and visitors to stay while they were in town. Harris, who considered himself a culturally savvy man, courted famous friends and guests, and the home quickly earned a reputation for being a revolving door for artists, athletes, and more (Pittsburgh’s location between Chicago and New York made it an ideal stopover).
Guests would stay for days or weeks at a time in the upstairs room, a luxurious option when local hotels were still whites only. Soon, neighbors took to calling it Mystery Manor: you never knew who might show up, from boxer Joe Louis to music star Cab Calloway. If jazz legend Billy Eckstine was in town, he’d at least make a stop at Apple Street.
"The house itself was miraculous, it just took your breath away when you looked at it," says Charles "Teenie" Harris, Jr., the son of the original Teenie, when recalling visits as a child. "Inside, it reminded me of a ballroom, with the chandeliers and everything. There was a winding stairway leading to upstairs rooms."
According to Brewer, the while the nickname was a reference to celebrity visitors, the home also had plenty of other claims to a mysterious vibe. Other racketeers would often meet inside, as the home offered neutral ground of sorts for bosses from other neighborhoods to meet.
In addition, in the '40s, neighborhood children at one point constructed a wood-and-stone shrine to St. Mary on the property. Old black-and-white photos show people praying at the shrine, amid a scattering of fruit trees in the backyard.
One of the home’s most notable residents was Mary Cardwell Dawson, a local music teacher who grew up in Homewood, Pennsylvania. Harris let her teach lessons out of Mystery Manor—her students included jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal—and when she decided to found the National Negro Opera Company (NNOC) in 1941, gave her fledgling company space to operate inside. It was typical Woogie, according to Harris, outreach that helped the community, and a good bet. The group’s staging of Aida at the now-defunct Syria Mosque that October, which starred, among others Bobby McFerrin’s father Robert, Sr., was a huge hit.
"African-Americans were shut out of opera and classical performances at that time," says Black. "The National Negro Opera Company demonstrated that they had the skill and talent to be recognized as serious artists, and that there was an audience in the community for these art forms. It was a coming-out party for the opera."
While Dawson would soon move to Washington, D.C., in 1942, to start one of many additional companies for the NNOC, the boost the group received from being located at Mystery Manor helped them stage the extremely ambitious programming that earned them a national reputation. It wasn’t the first African-American opera company, but it became the longest-lasting of its time, performing for decades before breaking up in 1962.
Harris’s home functioned as a community focal point, and sadly, by the ‘60s, it’s fate became intertwined with that of the greater Homewood area. After Harris passed away in 1967, a family member tried to subdivide the building into apartments, but the plan didn’t work out, and they were forced to sell.
A number of larger shifts, including the construction of the Civic Arena in the Lower Hill in the ‘50s, displaced many African-Americans into Homewood, leading to overcrowding, as well as the 1968 riots and white flight. This severely damaged the neighborhood’s business district, and broke up neighborhood life in the Hills and Homewood.
The home deteriorated, and there was no upkeep, says Brewer.
By the time Solomon, who immigrated from Guyana, picked up the home in 2000 with partner Miriam White (who is now deceased) with thoughts of renovating, it had been unused for decades, and Homewood, once a more bustling center of African-American life, had become a struggling neighborhood known for its high crime rates. It cost $18,000, just a few thousand more than Woogie paid for it decades earlier.
"I wanted to do a service project for Pittsburgh," says Solomon. "Saving a historic landmark seemed like a great project to me."
Solomon and others envision a future for the house that seems to keep with Woogie’s philosophy of community involvement. She’s been pursuing a community arts center model, and believes that it’s important for there to be access to art, culture, and music in the community.
The repairs, however, would cost $3 million dollars, and despite repeated entreaties to local and state officials, as well as private donors, she hasn’t been able to put together enough donations at one time to move forward.
"What’s difficult about a home in a vulnerable neighborhood is the amount of resources needed to preserve and sustain it," says Craig, whose organization has been involved with efforts to preserve the home since the early 2000s. "It’s an African-American neighborhood that’s hit hard times, and trying to get a plan together for preservation through development is tough. If we can create a situation where there’s a non-profit and for-profit business here that can sustain the house, that’s what I favor. It needs to be owned by a for-profit business to get tax credits."
Craig sees this as one of many such sites in similar circumstances. His group has considered starting an organization devoted solely to African-American history sites. Solomon says she’ll stick with the home—"it’s in my nature to stick with things"—and is meeting with people every week to talk about the home. But putting the Mystery Manor back together is a puzzle she hasn’t been able to solve.
"It’s important for the African-American community to see this place come back, because it’s an important part of our history," says John Brewer. "The Negro Opera House was a central part of that culture. But how are you going to afford it?"
∙ The Other Miller House [Curbed]