Echoes of August Wilson sound in the Hill District's new Carnegie Library. | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Echoes of August Wilson sound in the Hill District's new Carnegie Library.

click to enlarge Booked: the Carnegie Library's new Hill District branch.
Booked: the Carnegie Library's new Hill District branch.

In a pivotal episode of August Wilson's youth, the future playwright wrote a high school term paper on Napoleon. His teacher, unwilling to acknowledge the student's prodigious talent, and apparently incapable of asking the sort of questions that might affirm his authorship, accused him of plagiarism. The fed-up August Wilson left high school and embarked on a program of self-education at the Carnegie Library branches in Hazelwood, the Hill District and Oakland. The Carnegie Library much later awarded him an honorary degree, a singular occurrence for a singular figure.

What better way, then, to affirm Wilson's thirst for self-education than with a new library branch in the Hill, where he was born and where nearly all of his plays are set? A structure designed by Pfaffmann & Associates opened at the end of October. While it has one room specifically named for August Wilson, the entire place seems to engage his legacy.

For starters, it is sited much more suitably than the old branch, which was located in the Phoenix Mall, on Dinwiddie Street, and seemed almost hidden from the neighborhood. At the corner of Centre and Kirkpatrick streets, the new building, which replaces a gas station, sits across from a row of storefronts, a cluster of activity. Pfaffmann's structure puts expansive windows on the street and seats just inside to emphasize social connection. His familiarly elegant kit-of-parts architectural style borrows from nearby buildings enough to harmonize with, but not exactly replicate, existing storefronts.

At the corner of the rectilinear building, though, an extra "beak" of space pokes into the Centre sidewalk, pushing readers and pedestrians closer to each other. Actually, this is simply the building mass following a jog in the street grid. But if Pfaffmann has elevated an irregular rhythm of the neighborhood into socially inflected art, then all the better, and all the more appropriate to the playwright.

This extension is, in fact, the August Wilson Room. It's a good place to sit and read with an eye toward what's going on outside, as a variety of people affirmed during my visits. An enlarged, 7-by-10-foot map of the Hill District, circa 1923, dominates the east wall. This is a Hopkins map, originally created for fire-insurance purposes but now the delight of historians and antiquarians, with color-coded detail to show the footprint of every single building. This particular version has numbered markers to indicate the locations of important sites, many now gone, from Wilson's plays, as researched and annotated by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette drama critic Christopher Rawson.

No. 13 indicates Eddie's restaurant, located just across the alley from the new library. Eddie's was the unnamed, but clearly intended, locale for Wilson's Two Trains Running, set in 1969. In fact, in the play, characters argue about the fate of the building in light of the city's plans to purchase it through eminent domain, the scourge of the Hill. You can sit just below the map on a stool that actually comes from Eddie's and read Wilson's plays, which sit conveniently on the counter.

Eddie's, though, did not come down during the 1960s. Shockingly, it was removed just within the past several months -- despite the explicit wishes of Pfaffmann and various community members to have it designated as a landmark. Mindy See, senior project manager with Christine Davis Consultants, researched the project for the Urban Redevelopment Authority to determine its historic value. She said that there was "no documentary evidence" that Eddie's was the restaurant in Two Trains Running, characterizing such assertions as "hearsay."

Of course, the importance of oral tradition in African-American culture -- which Wilson himself emphasized -- might have led a researcher to put more weight on such interviews. But in any case, Wilson affirmed the significance of the place by name. One character in Wilson's The Piano Lesson says, "Go on down there to Wylie and Kirkpatrick to Eddie's restaurant. Coffee cost a nickel and you can get two eggs, sausage and grits for fifteen cents." Any doubts about the importance of Eddie's were, at best, a grave misapprehension -- as if, a couple of Pulitzer Prizes later, Wilson's authorship of the Napoleon paper were still in question.

August Wilson turned away from early skeptics into the arms of the Carnegie Library. This generation can renew its embrace of the institution with similar potential, finding Wilson's values of social engagement and intellectual curiosity very much intact ... even if not all of the nearby buildings are.

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