An artist is trying to help revitalize a blighted community starting with one old, abandoned, beloved building.
To drive through Wilkinsburg is to tour the ravages of a post-industrial Pittsburgh, a suburb of the comeback city that just hasn’t come back, yet. Houses stand empty, there are open lots, drug deals go down in broad daylight. And then, glimmering on a corner lot: a house painted gold.
Standing out front, Sandra Nelson admired the new paint job. She lived in this house from the 1970s until 1986 and had watched over the years as subsequent owners abandoned the property and it began to deteriorate. When she drove by one day and saw her house resplendent in gold, she sought out the person responsible for the makeover.
That’s how she met artist and architect Dee Briggs, who lives and works next door, in an old firehouse. “I was working hard to make my property look nice and right here at the gateway to our neighborhood was this eyesore,” Briggs said of the house.
She also saw kids playing on the unstable roof and thought it posed a hazard. She acquired it through a vacant property program. Briggs wants to demolish the house manually and save the architectural detailing. As an architect, Briggs thinks it’s the right thing to do, and as a nostalgic former occupant, Nelson likes the gentle approach to demolition.
Just an hour after successfully raising the money on Kickstarter to pay for the pricier demolition, the two celebrated together inside the House of Gold. “It used to look so big. But now it looks small,” Nelson marveled in the entryway.
The house is empty, the roof falling in, paint peeling. But she still has a favorite room, the kitchen. She said it was the family’s “dream kitchen. Everybody stayed in this kitchen. Families. They drank beer, they drank coffee, we cooked big dinners.” Now, she said, it’s all “just memories, just wonderful memories.”
The kitchen still has its original wood cabinets, a couple of small windows, and yellow and green tile along the perimeter of the wall. Briggs picked at the floor, trying to figure out if the original floor was still there. Under a later addition, she found the green and yellow tile, to match the decorative wall inlay.
Spreading the gold
The Nelsons loved this house. They now proudly call themselves the Nelson Occupants of the House of Gold. And they also loved the neighborhood.
Back then, said Nelson, it was “real busy, kids everywhere, we had fun, everybody lived in the houses around you, everything was built, everything was lived in. It was beautiful, very much alive.”
The decline of vibrant neighborhoods into blighted ones is a familiar story to those who live in emptied out, economically depressed communities scattered all over the Rust Belt. But it’s a narrative Briggs is determined to reverse in Wilkinsburg, starting by bringing life back to her little corner. Her theory is, little by little, the neighborhood will follow. Briggs said the coat of gold and accompanying website, which details the home’s history, drew attention to the house and “really changed how people treat this particular property. There’s so much less garbage on the site since we painted it gold than there used to be. The windows are all exposed, the glass, and not a single window has been broken since we’ve painted it gold.”
The gold paint is just the beginning, though. There’s a bus stop on the corner where she wants to build a shelter out of salvaged materials from the house. And then she wants to put a coffee shop in the basement of the house, where the Nelsons used to have parties. The idea is introduce a place for neighbors to gather, a place for community to grow.
The matriarch of the Nelson family, Helen Nelson, who moved out of the house in the 1990s once all of the children left, has her doubts about the cafe.
“I don’t know if people in our neighborhood, or like they call it the hood, is interested in coffee shops. I don’t know,” she said.
But she trusts Briggs. The family has kind of adopted her.
“They might be,” Helen Nelson added.