In their fourth and final year, undergraduates at the School of Design reconvene from their tracks of expertise and take on thesis projects with opportunities for more depth and reach. This semester, Associate Professor Dylan Vitone is teaching the senior project course with a focus on community engagement and transformation in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. For their project, seniors Danae Paparis, Ismael Sobek, Lucy Mou, and Yoon-Ji Kim are working with the Reverend Tyrone Munson of the Olivet Baptist Church in the Hill District to support the Reverend and his church’s ties to the community. Having been inspired by the church’s three pillars of love, fellowship, and service, the history of the church’s building, and the Reverend himself, this team is investing in both the history and the future of the church by designing a plan for its restoration as a prominent figure in the Hill District and Pittsburgh as a whole. Much of their work will be highlighted at the upcoming Olivet Fun Fest on April 23rd.
The group explored the Hill District with Vitone and met Reverend Munson at the beginning of the semester. According to Paparis, “Reverend Munson has the passion and kindness big enough to assist, inspire, and fill hearts and church sanctuaries endlessly, and [the group] could feel that energy from the beginning.” His warm hospitality and heart for the community drew them in almost instantly. One of the group’s responsibilities has been to maintain close contact with Reverend Munson -- fondly known as the Reverend or even the Rev -- through which they’ve been able to discover his “passion and kindness big enough to assist, inspire, and fill hearts/grand sanctuaries endlessly without tire.”
Vitone supports the students’ relationships with the community, hoping that they learn to “[be] overwhelmed by the vastness of the problems and channel that energy to figure out where they can have an impact.”
The Reverend has stated that one of his goals is to “meet the needs of people as they need to be [met],” believing deeply that loving and caring for one another is what matters most. Currently, the run-down building is used most frequently as a venue for funerals, “often for people who didn’t even attend the church, for basically no money, and commonly for young people in the neighborhood who fell to violence.”
It houses a small worship service on Sundays, but the congregation isn’t large enough to bring in financial support for everything the Reverend would like to do to meet the needs of his community. However, he maintains dreams of the church building being used to house programs like a soup kitchen, outdoor pavilion, and a music program that would bring it back to a place of prominence in the Hill District in recognition of its history.
From the Roaring Twenties through the early 1940’s, the Olivet Baptist Church’s building was home to the Elmore Theatre -- “the swankiest theater on the Hill” -- and then the Savoy Ballroom, a club that played host to jazz superstars like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. In those days, Pittsburgh’s Hill District was a booming arts center and one of the most influential neighborhoods in the history of jazz and African-American culture. The building changed hands time and time again as it changed names, swinging from the place to play jazz to decline and back again.
By the time the Hill District started undergoing controversial “urban redevelopment” in the 1950’s, the building’s run as the center of one of the most “happenin’” spots for jazz in the nation was over. The Calvary Baptist Church, an older church in the area, purchased the building to house a church plant called the Olivet Baptist Church. Since then, most of the history of the building has been obscured from view and much of it has fallen into disrepair.
About the Reverend and his goals, Vitone says that he is a “really great man who is working hard to turn this church/building that has such a storied past around. All so often in these ‘urban neighborhoods’ we get such rich artistic expression and once society as a whole no longer needs it, we move on. … We take the artistry to the suburbs and let the building that created them crumble.
"The Reverend wants to someday teach music, art, and even design to kids from the neighborhood that might not have access to it otherwise in that building,” he added.
Vitone is hoping that this semester and this project is just the beginning of a longer relationship between the School of Design and the community and is excited to see the seniors on this project connecting with the community and “[being] affected as they give back as designers.”
In order to help the Reverend meet his community’s needs and pay homage to the building’s history, the group is organizing a fundraiser called the Olivet Fun Fest, or O.F.F. DAY, as part of their thesis project. Held on April 23, O.F.F. DAY will be the first installation of an annual festival with performances by local musicians, plenty of food, and opportunities to learn about the Hill District as it was, as it is, and as it may become.
Before the event, the group is raising starting funds through their GoFundMe page to build the infrastructure and support needed for the event to go on: a stage, a PA system, restroom facilities, posters and other outreach materials, nailing down a schedule of performers, preparing food, and more. Funds from ticket sales, goods sold at the event, and potential sponsors/partners will go directly to Olivet Baptist Church.
Read more of the group's process documentation, which has more details about their conversations with Reverend Tyrone Munson and the history of the Olivet Baptist Church’s building.