Saving Chez Warhol | Architecture | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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Saving Chez Warhol 

 

 

Changing the name of the Seventh Street Bridge to the Andy Warhol Bridge, as happened with great ceremony on March 18, means giving well-deserved additional recognition to one of Pittsburgh's favorite sons. It also makes for helpful directions, since you now take the Andy Warhol Bridge to the eponymous museum. There's additional resonance as well: Warhol made his name in the art world by making repetitive, seemingly industrially produced images. It's all too appropriate that the bridge we've renamed for him is one of a series of three identical structures.

 

 

Clearly, the interpretive potential of the relationship between Warhol and Pittsburgh is still richer than many people realize. The evidence stares us in the face, often unnoticed. The former Warhol residence at 3252 Dawson St. is a case in point. It sits, abandoned and dilapidated, in a storied but decaying section of South Oakland. What had been a backdrop for an epoch-making narrative in the history of pop art and pop culture is now the backdrop for little other than the occasional drug deal.

 

Former Carnegie Magazine editor Bob Gangewere emphasizes the house's significance in Warhol's youth. Gangewere began his research as part of an insightful 1991 article on the influence of Pittsburgh on Andrew Carnegie and Andy Warhol. The work led him to Dawson Street. No. 3252 became the Warhola residence (Andy dropped the "a" when he moved to New York) in 1934, when Andy's father bought it for $3,200 at the recommendation of an uncle who lived next door. Andy was 6 years old. Though the Warholas lived in other houses in Pittsburgh, Andy's birthplace no longer exists, and this is where he lived the longest. From here, he walked to Holmes School, formerly across the street, Schenley High School and Carnegie Tech. Until he moved to New York in 1949 at age 21, this South Oakland rowhouse was the center of his world.

 

In interviews with Gangewere, Andy's brother John described the house as a well-tended residence with a trimmed lawn and hedges in front and flowers and kitchen gardens in the back.

 

Gangewere is one of a small ad hoc group of historians, community activists and other interested parties working to save the house. The group includes people from the Warhol Foundation, Carnegie Mellon University and Project Rowhouses in Texas. Gangewere explains, though, that neither the museum nor the foundation "is in the business of either buying or trying to maintain properties." Yet they all understand the potential significance of this modest house. "It's closer to the heart and soul of Pittsburgh than the Frick Mansion," he states.

 

Unfortunately, the group faces an uphill battle. Though Allegheny County records list Junius and Rose Bruce as owners of the house, neither they nor their heirs are anywhere to be found. Doug Stewart, a real-estate agent working with Gangewere, laments, "Unfortunately, when the owner of record passes away without transferring ownership, getting ownership is well-nigh impossible."

 

The committee is trying. Working with the Oakland Planning and Development

Corp. in consultation with the office of city councilor Sala Udin, in whose district the house is located, they are seeking to arrange a treasurer's sale. But that process, though quicker than a sheriff's sale, could still take two to three years. Staffing cuts in city departments have only slowed matters further. Meanwhile, the modest yellow brick rowhouse is slowly losing its roof, porch and fascia. Physical collapse is a real possibility.

 

John Warhola told Gangewere that he would love to see the house restored and used in a manner that pays tribute to his younger brother. It could be both an historical site and a useful residence. "[T]hey might have two or three artists living there," he suggested. Attention to improved living conditions for students in one potentially highly visible house could have salutary effects on a neighborhood whose history and built fabric are being allowed to decay all too rapidly.

 

The seeming impasse is especially frustrating because the Warhol name and legacy have an established regenerative benefit for Pittsburgh. The opportunity should not be allowed to slip away. Losing the home, says Gangewere, "would be a disgrace to the city, a disgrace to Oakland, a disgrace to everybody."

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