the Historic Olivet Baptist Church
Course: Senior Design Studio
Instructor: Dylan Vitone
Partners: Danae Paparis, Yoon-Ji Kim, Lucy Mou
The Olivet Baptist Church on Centre Ave., in Pittsburgh's Hill District, is one of those buildings whose walls you wish could talk. Opened as the Elmore club in the Jazz Age, when the Hill was nicknamed "the Crossroads of the World"; later re-opened as the Savoye Ballroom; today the grand old building is slowly crumbling around the Baptist church that has occupied it for over a decade. The church building is a microcosm of the Hill as a whole: a rich history, disrupted by (extremely, ahem, questionable) "urban redevelopment" in the 50's; not yet recovered.
We met the current Reverend, Tyrone Munson, on a cold but sunny afternoon outside his church. He was warm from the get-go, giving us each a big hug, thanking us for coming (even though we should have been thanking him). We talked for hours about the history of the church and the significance of the neighborhood; we talked about the current state of the Hill and the needs of the community. Reverend Munson told us he'd performed twenty-five funerals in the past three years. Rev Munson tries to meet the community's needs.
We left the Hill that first day with our heads swimming in history, hope, possibility, despair creeping in at the edges. Over the next few weeks we scheduled meetings with the Rev and dug through old scans of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation's first and best black newspapers, for whatever we could find about the Olivet building. Then we started to put it together, making the building's story clear for the first time in decades.
Our heads no longer swimming, we decided on how we would help Reverend Munson re-invigorate his church. His church sorely needs funds, but it also needs attention. The history of the place is too romantic to be forgotten: once the finest dance-hall in the city, plush and glittering, and host to Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway; before this, a magnificent cinema, decadent and splendid and un-segregated. Even today, if you look through a gap in the drop ceiling up, up at the grand height of the ballroom, you can imagine the sounds of jazz and vaudeville and the very first "talkies" filling it.
The first day we met him, Rev Munson told us he "heard music in the air" of the old building. We decided to bring the music back, by organizing, promoting and branding a one-day music festival at the church. The Olivet Fun Fest (O.F.F. DAY!) will feature food, fun and local musicians from all over Pittsburgh. All proceeds from tickets and refreshments will go to benefit Olivet Baptist, helping the church reconnect with its community and share its rich history with Pittsburgh. Help us bring O.F.F. DAY to life!