Mission Statement: National Opera House will restore and maintain the site of the National Negro Opera Company in order to teach culture through arts and music to the youth of the community.



In 1941, Mary Cardwell Dawson had a unique vision. That dream was to shape young people in her community into great musical artists by becoming part of the National Negro Opera Company family. She took a Victorian home at 7101 Apple Street and turned it into a pillar of culture and life for the Homewood, Lincoln, Lemington, Larimer, and East Liberty neighborhoods for over two decades.

Mary Cardwell Dawson had aspirations that, unfortunately, were ahead of her time. At the age of 31, she graduated as the only African-American student from the New England Conservatory with degrees in voice and piano. Not finding a path open to her as a Black opera singer, she married and moved to Pittsburgh, where she opened her Cardwell Dawson School of Music above her husband's electrical shop.

For nearly 15 years, Madame Dawson trained hundreds of people from her community to sing operatically, and eventually gained a name for her choir group. In 1941, she was able to open the National Negro Opera Company [NNOC], and moved it into the third floor space at 7101 Apple Street.

The NNOC staged productions such as La Traviata, Faust, and original works of black composers Cameron White (Ouanga) and R. Nathaniel Dett (The Ordering of Moses) at Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall. Madame Dawson helped set up NNOC chapters in Washington, DC, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, and New York. It was not uncommon to open the Chicago Defender or the Washington Afro-American, both prominent African-American newspapers of the time, and read reviews of NNOC performances. The NNOC helped launch careers for African-Americans opera singers like Robert McFerrin Sr. and La Julia Rhea, and jazz composer and pianist Ahmad Jamal.

This majestic building was designated by the City of Pittsburgh as a Historical Landmark on September 25, 1994. In addition to the historic structure's importance as the home of the first African-American opera company in America, 1930's owner and businessman William "Woogie" Harris housed celebrities like Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughn, Cab Calloway, Joe Louis, and Pirates great Roberto Clemente, who were denied accommodations elsewhere due to their ethnicity. It was also where the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pirates hung their uniforms when they were off the field.To many, it is still known as "Mystery Manor."


In 2000, the late Miriam White and Jonnet Solomon-Nowlin, two members of the community, again want to reach out to young people by offering unique programs such as the Pittsburgh Youth Steelpan Orchestra, a music studio, tea room, and community meeting space. They have observed the destruction of numerous historically-rich structures in the Pittsburgh area, and are earnestly working towards preserving this unique and significant one. Today, we are asking for your help to make this dream of a youth arts center possible. But first, we must repair this historical site.

In 2003, both women formed a non-profit corporation, National Opera House, as a way to seek help in restoring the building to its former glory. As Executive Director Jonnet Solomon-Nowlin shares, "We want to make it an art center… We bought it because it was sitting there falling apart, and we didn't want to let it disappear with no one knowing its history."

In November of 2008, this building was cited with a letter of condemnation by the City of Pittsburgh. In order to meet the requirements proposed by the city, we need to raise $120,000 immediately to begin Phase One work on the site.

Phase One:

  • New shingled roof
  • Replacement of 63 windows
  • Rebuilding of wrap-around porch
  • New electrical wiring
  • New plumbing
  • New forced air

Phase Two:

  • Stucco
  • Refurbishment of original hardwood oak floors
  • Interior and exterior painting
  • Tea room refurbishment
  • Bathroom installation
  • Offices

Phase Three:

  • Equipment
  • Furniture
  • Instruments
  • Security system
  • Landscaping

Today National Opera House needs your help. As a 501(c)(3) organization, we are looking for donations to support our renovation efforts in Phase One. Please donate today!

We intend to preserve the invaluable history of the musicians who have provided a legacy on National Opera House, Pittsburgh, and the world.