Most Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, residents recognize the building on the northwest corner of Wylie Avenue and Elmore Street as the Crawford Grill No. 2. That’s the name that the most visible business in the building went by for half a century and that’s the name that historic preservationists used in 2019 to nominate the property to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Crawford Grill No. 2 isn’t a bad name for the building. It fits, considering how long the nightclub occupied the space. But because historic preservationists have focused on the building’s time as the Crawford Grill No. 2 and the people who owned it between 1945 and 2003, there’s a lot missing from the building’s story. The historic preservation narrative, which closely hews to previously published texts documenting the building’s colorful time as an internationally renowned jazz club, conforms to what the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”
The “single story,” according to Adichie, flattens experience and they encourage stereotypes: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
This post offers some additional storylines to the three-story brick building at 2141 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. I need to be up front about how I ended up reading the draft National Register nomination for the property. In August 2019 I began a research project stemming from my work on a book about erasure and gentrification in an Atlanta suburb. I had been studying numbers gambling in urban and suburban areas since 2015.
[A quick primer on numbers gambling offsite source]
Histories of the Hill District became essential reading and I took advantage of local archival resources after moving back to Pittsburgh in 2019. While reading some of the Hill District work I went down a research rabbit hole pursuing questions around the intersection of history and folklore in Hill District vice. The light on the other end of the rabbit hole led me to begin conversations with a university press about a book on the history of Pittsburgh numbers gambling rackets. But that’s a story for another place and another time. The remainder of this post focuses on 2141 Wylie Avenue and some of its other stories.
Hill District Institutions and 2141 Wylie Avenue
By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, Pittsburgh’s Hill District had become a congested immigrant ghetto. European immigrants and African Americans who came to Pittsburgh from the South competed for space and wealth.
The Europeans who settled the Hill were markedly different from Pittsburgh’s first immigrant waves. The new arrivals were Eastern European Jews, Italian Catholics, Syrians, and Greeks who brought with them cultural rhythms that sometimes clashed with their Smoky City predecessors from the British Isles and Germany. The African Americans who moved from the Jim Crow South to the Hill faced familiar anti-Black racism.
A small sociological study of the Hill District published c. 1917 by the Irene Kaufmann Settlement is a good overview of the Hill District’s demographics around the time that 2141 Wylie Avenue was built. Director Sydney A. Teller wrote the study and he described his institution’s neighbors:
In the order of their approximate numbers, they are Russian Jew, American Negro, American White, Italians, Roumanians [sp.], Austrians, Assyrians, Poles, Germans, Irish, Canadions [sp.], Portuguese, Greeks, Armenians, French, Croatians, and Lithuanians. The neighborhood at one time was inhabited by people mostly natives of Pittsburgh, at least natives of the United States, who have been moving away with the influx of Foreigners. The Russian Jews were the first group to have been pushed steadily up the “Hill” by the Italians, and the Italians in their turn, have been pushed by the Greeks. While for some years there has been a small Negro colony who wedged themselves between the Italians and the Russian Jews, during the year 1916-1917, a great influx of Negroes from the South came into the general neighborhood. This has made the neighborhood more congested …. [Sydney A. Teller, “Synopsis of Social Studies of the Neighborhood of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement.” Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Irene Kaufmann Settlement, n.d 1917. JCC of Greater Pittsburgh Collection, MSS No. 389, Box 8, Rauh Jewish Archives, Detre Library, Heinz History Center.]
To create community and to ensure survival, the Hill District’s residents produced elaborate and enduring informal economies. These off-the-books businesses included legal trades (e.g., hucksters) and extralegal ones that exploited human weaknesses (e.g., liquor, prostitution, and gambling).
As early as 1917, the director of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement noted, there were 93 institutions in the Hill District working “constructively for the betterment of the community.” Teller also noted 195 “factors” that he wrote were neutral or negative influences. These included saloons, pool rooms and “disorderly houses.”
Several important vice entrepreneurs and networks emerged in the early 1920s, just a few years after Teller’s report was published. Two of the best known in the Hill District were William A. “Gus” Greenlee (1892-1952) and William “Woogie” Harris (1896-1967). Much has been written about their bootlegging activities and the long-held belief that the pair introduced numbers gambling to Pittsburgh in the mid-1920s.
Greenlee and Harris cut a path through the Hill District and the region that set them apart from other Pittsburgh African Americans. Their vice empire enabled Greenlee and Harris to move away from crowded Hill District tenements in the late 1920s and into spacious homes at the edge of the city. Greenlee and Harris’s wealth also filled major gaps in the Hill District’s economy through philanthropy and money lending. Those are well-documented facts and they are not in dispute. What is missing from the narratives on the Hill and its best-known entrepreneurs is context.
Pittsburgh historians have blazed methodological trails in their analyses of the city’s industrial, economic, ethnic, and political histories that have influenced generations of urban historians working here and elsewhere. Yet, some of the city’s local history remains parochial, detached from work done elsewhere. This is the case with regard to the existing literature on Pittsburgh’s numbers gambling and vice in general. There are some notable exceptions, like University of Pittsburgh history PhD Julien Comte’s richly researched master’s paper and later article on Prohibition in the city.
Missing, however, are the many urban history and sociology studies produced in recent decades that explore urban informal economies in general and the cultures of African American organized crime and numbers gambling in particular. Those studies and my work on African American communities in the Washington, D.C., area led me to the Hill District, to Greenlee and Harris, and to the 2100 block of Wylie Avenue.
Harris and Greenlee were larger than life. They were legends. A 1932 article published in The Pittsburgh Courier, the city’s nationally renowned Black newspaper, all but uses that word in its description of Greenlee:
It wouldn’t be a surprise to hear that the daddies up there gather their brown-skinned little ones to their knee at bedtime and tell how Gus came to town on a freight train as a poor boy, worked hard, started the “numbers” business, and kept a lot of his people in groceries.
And that’s where the historiographical problems begin. So much has been written about Greenlee and Harris and the world that they built that few scholars have taken a step back to look critically at the sources upon which the established narratives — the legends — were built. Except for a small body of oral histories, most historians of the Hill and biographers of Greenlee and Harris have relied on a large volume of newspaper articles documenting their careers and personal lives.
Much of the journalism on Greenlee and Harris is split between two sources: decades of coverage by The Pittsburgh Courier (and its successor, The New Pittsburgh Courier), and the muckraking investigations into Pittsburgh’s underworld by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ray Sprigle.
The oral histories and the journalism are wonderful sources, with much to offer scholars and lay readers. But there is more than a single story by which to understand the Hill, its vice entrepreneurs, and the buildings they occupied. This limited number of primary sources comprises the Hill District’s single story in general and it is the basis for the single story presented in the Crawford Grill No. 2’s National Register of Historic Places nomination.
https://i1.wp.com/blog.historian4hire.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/CrawfordGrill-Marker-2.jpg?resize=890%2C1024&ssl=1 890w, https://i1.wp.com/blog.historian4hire.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/0... 768w, https://i1.wp.com/blog.historian4hire.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/0... 900w" sizes="(max-width: 261px) 100vw, 261px" data-recalc-dims="1" />The single story attached to 2141 Wylie Avenue recounts its construction in 1917 and its early years’ use as a series of short-lived commercial enterprises, stores and restaurants. According to the historic preservationists who wrote about the building, its period of significance lasts from 1945 to 1968. The reason it is significant, they wrote, is for its associations with jazz history and for its associations with Gus Greenlee and his role as a performing arts entrepreneur.
The narrative glosses over the building’s first three decades and all of the activities that occurred there. True, it does mention some people and their businesses whose names appear in deeds and in newspaper articles. But the preservationists failed to dig deeper into the contextual significance of those people and activities. They overlooked a lot of off-the-books activities (gambling, bootlegging, etc.) and other entrepreneurial community-building activities that took place at 2141 Wylie Avenue in the three decades preceding Gus Greenlee’s name appearing in a property transaction.
The preservationists’ period of significance also prematurely ends in 1968 with the unrest that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. (The ending date is as much an artifact of historic preservation practice as it is a blind spot in the research involving the building.) The flat significance statement discounts the building’s role in the Hill District’s underground economy as the site of serial gambling and drinking establishments located on a highly visible corner in the Hill District.
The historic preservation narrative erased, dismissed, and sanitized the foundations for later owner Gus Greenlee’s wealth and prominence. It also sets up contemporary and future journalists, history buffs, and other historians to perpetuate a single story that has made stereotypes of Greenlee, Harris, and others.
These erasures hide a very important association that Greenlee had with one of the business owners — not an owner of the building at 2141 Wylie, but a significant individual nonetheless — who also played a key role in Hill District history generally and whose partnership with Greenlee seems to have been overlooked. Richard “Dick” Gauffney didn’t become a millionaire and he didn’t break the color barrier to become popular among white jazz aficionados and historic preservationists. Gauffney did, however, leave an indelible imprint in the Hill District that deviates from the single story most often associated to the community and its best known figures.
Richard Gauffney, Entrepreneur and Racketeer
Richard Gauffney was born in Virginia; there are conflicting dates for his birth and they range from 1878 to 1887. A World War I draft registration card that he signed in 1918 gives his birthdate as July 3, 1878. The registrar who completed the form described Gauffney as a tall African American man with a medium build with brown eyes and black hair. The form also notes that Gauffney was missing part of his right index finger.
Gauffney’s early life is ripe for historical research. He is documented in Pittsburgh for what appears to be the first time in the 1910 census. He was living in a building at 25 Fulton (later Fullerton) Street with his wife, Ella, and a stepdaughter. Gauffney’s occupation in the 1910 census form is illegible; Ella was identified as West Virginia native and a “lodging house keeper.” Ella’s occupation explains the nine lodgers shown in the household.
In 1918, Gauffney was working as a rigger (foreman) for the John F. Casey Company and the 1920 census shows him still working as a construction company foreman. The John F. Casey Company constructed bridges and railroads throughout the Mid-Atlantic. It is unclear whether Gauffney traveled for his work or if he remained in Pittsburgh.
By the mid-1920s, Gauffney had left construction and gone into the hospitality and gambling business. In 1926, Gauffney was arrested and fined $100 for keeping a disorderly house, a place where law enforcement officers found evidence of “gambling, immorality, liquor selling or disorderliness of any serious kind.” Gauffney’s disorderly house was at 70 Fullerton Street. According to The Pittsburgh Press, 31 men and two women were arrested in a space with a still and multiple liquor bottles, filled and empty.
Gauffney appeared in Pittsburgh newspapers three years later when The Pittsburgh Courier began publishing a series of articles previewing his latest venture: a new bar he and partner Gus Greenlee were planning to open on the corner of Wylie Avenue and Townsend Street. To gin up interest in the new club, which was to feature live music and food, Greenlee and Gauffney ran a contest, open only to ladies: Pick the new joint’s name, win $50.
Miss Jennie Jackson, who lived at 2611 Wylie Avenue, picked the winning name: “The Green Boot.” According to the Courier, Jackson picked the name to honor an iconic part of Greenlee’s wardrobe and to “symbolize the riding boot which was typical to the aristocracy of the cavalier period.”
The building at 1401 Wylie Avenue had previously been known as “The Leader House”; Gauffney and Greenlee’s enterprise was one of many in a string of sometimes overlapping businesses that occupied the building in the 1920s and 1930s. Its three stories offered lots of opportunities for the building’s owners, Greenlee and Gauffney, to rent space to allied businesses. In 1932, after turnover on multiple floors, Courier columnist John Clark wrote, “This night life hangout has been known as the Leader House Cabaret, Green Boot, Avenue and Crawford. Present-day cabaret customers remember all these names and managers.”
The Green Boot was one of several known Greenlee hospitality businesses in the Hill District. These “legitimate” businesses included other nightclubs, restaurants, and poolrooms. In the early 1930s, Greenlee made several consequential business decisions, including buying a baseball team (the Pittsburgh Crawfords), building a baseball stadium (Greenlee Field), and becoming a boxing promoter. As for the building at 1401 Wylie Avenue, Greenlee renamed the business the Crawford Grill No. 1.
Greenlee’s on-the-books businesses required a lot of capital, money he got from bootlegging and running a successful numbers gambling ring. Those stories are well-documented and are beyond the scope of this blog post. There are, however, some essential points that need to be underscored here regarding Greenlee’s complicated relationship with Richard Gauffney. The first is that Gauffney was among the four individuals named in 1970s oral histories credited with introducing numbers gambling to Pittsburgh; the others were Gus Greenlee, Woogie Harris, and William Snyder. “Dick Gafney [Gauffney] brought to Gus like today, Gus started a couple of days later and then gave it to Woogie,” famed Pittsburgh Courier photographer (and Woogie Harris’s brother) Teenie Harris told University of Pittsburgh PhD student Ralph Hill in an oral history interview. “Woogie started then, about a year later he gave it to Bill Snyder. Now Bill started booking numbers ….”
Gauffney is a likely candidate among this mix of people who could have traveled to Harlem and who had first-hand experience with numbers gambling in the community credited with introducing it to the United States. After all, he did work for a construction company with projects throughout the region, including in New York.
There are other likely theories for how numbers gambling arrived in Pittsburgh. The vectors surely included Pullman porters who lived here and who passed through the city daily; traveling baseball players; and, itinerant musicians who played gigs in the Hill District’s many joints. Whatever the route that numbers gambling took to become entrenched in Pittsburgh, all surviving evidence is clear: Greenlee and Harris were the city’s first numbers racket leaders.
But let’s stick with Gauffney for a moment. Except for occasional mentions by earlier scholars who have examined Hill District history, he remains an elusive figure. University of Pittsburgh professor and sports historian Rob Ruck, who has produced some of the most comprehensive and definitive work on numbers gambling history in Pittsburgh, wrote that one of his informants told him that Gauffney was a gasoline station owner in the 1920s who had come to Greenlee and Harris for a loan and who was “peripherally connected to the sporting [gambling] scene in Pittsburgh.”
Gauffney appears to have been much more than a gas station owner who borrowed money from Greenlee and Harris after taking a big hit in the numbers. Gauffney was a partner and owner of the business enterprises in which he and Greenlee collaborated. Their partnership was reported in newspaper articles and advertisements for the Green Boot. In 1934, they might have been part owners or hidden financial backers of an African American swimming pool outside of Pittsburgh.
I will be digging deeper elsewhere into Richard Gauffney’s role in Pittsburgh’s numbers gambling history. But for now, let’s turn to the building at the corner of Wylie Avenue and Elmore Street that has become known as the Crawford Grill No. 2.
Richard Gauffney’s Auburn Palace
At the same time as the Pittsburgh Courier was reporting that the Green Boot was closed for renovations, the paper also was reporting that Gauffney was planning to open a new venture featuring “loud speakers, baseball scores, decorated windows … billiard parlors and the central meeting place of worthwhile people.” Gauffney’s new establishment opened in the early summer of 1930 featuring a “Chinese pavilion” along with music and dancing to complement food prepared by chef Leon Hong.
https://i0.wp.com/blog.historian4hire.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Gauffney-Indictment.jpg?zoom=3&resize=214%2C441&ssl=1 642w" sizes="(max-width: 214px) 100vw, 214px" data-recalc-dims="1" />It didn’t take long for Gauffney’s new place to attract unwanted attention from Pittsburgh law enforcement officers. The spot was one of several raided the second week in August 1930. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Pittsburgh Press, multiple people were arrested on gambling and liquor charges in raids on Centre and Wylie avenues. “The raiders said they found about 150 men around gambling tables at Gauffney’s Auburn Palace,” the Press reported. Arrested were Gauffney and two others described as employees: William Johnson and Frank Solomon (or Solominsky).
Gauffney and his employees were indicted on three counts of keeping a gambling house and three counts of being a common gambler. They also were charged with multiple counts of manufacturing, selling, transporting, importing, and exporting intoxicating liquor. According to Pittsburgh police, there was a basement bar where beer was sold and crap games were held.
Gauffney and the others posted bond and were released from jail. They received suspended sentences and 18 months of probation. Their sentences included fines and they were required to pay court costs. The terms of their probation included supervision by a probation officer; gainful employment; and, they were not permitted to leave Allegheny County without prior permission from the court.
The raids and convictions don’t appear to have fazed Gauffney. In November 1930, The Pittsburgh Press reported that Gauffney served more than 600 Thanksgiving dinners in his Auburn Palace. He served duck, ham, vegetables and coffee. Gauffney also dispatched trucks bearing food and coffee to two police stations. At the stations, “He offered a ride and meal to the vagrants who spent the night in the stations. In addition, he took care of all the hungry white and Negro people in the vicinity of Wylie avenue.”
In early 1931, Gauffney’s Auburn Palace was featured in The Pittsburgh Courier. A photo feature included a shot of the interior and an inset photo of Anna Gauffney, Richard’s third wife (Ella died in 1929). The couple married in 1929 and the newspaper described her as Gauffney’s “wife and charming hostess.”
Gauffney stayed out of jail and the newspapers until December 1932 when the Courier reported that the Auburn Palace would be operating under new management in the new year. In April, the paper reported, “We notice that the equipment has been moved and windows stripped of all signs Gauffney’s Auburn Palace and the Gold Wing, both represented the investment of Dick Gauffney, he surely is getting into something ….”
The April 1932 Courier column was the last (known) article published about Gauffney and his Auburn Palace. After closing the Auburn Palace, Gauffney appears to have opened a billiards hall in the 1900 block of Wylie Avenue. One year after the Auburn Palace closed, Anna Gauffney packed up her clothes and left Richard.
As for the the building at 2141 Wylie Avenue, its owners leased it to several more people who ran a variety of restaurants and clubs there. In 1945, Gus Greenlee bought it and attached his iconic brand to the building.
What Happened to Richard Gauffney?
Gauffney filed for divorce from Anna in late 1940. He testified in court May 12, 1941, “We were married some four or five months and she said I am sorry I got married, because I like to go places, I like to travel, she told me three or four times — I went to work and I came back, she got her clothes and she was gone. That was in 1933.”
The court never was able to locate Anna Gauffney and her side of the story was never told. “I heard once she was in Chicago, but I inquired, couldn’t get no trace of her,” Richard told the court in 1941.
A year after his divorce from Anna, Richard married Jeanette Meade Thompson. City directories and Pittsburgh police records show the pair lived at 1927 Wylie Avenue. The couple operated a billiards parlor next door at 1929 Wylie Avenue. Richard by this time, if he was born in 1878, would have been in his early 60s. In 1945, three years into their marriage, Richard was arrested for assaulting Jeanette. It was the first in a series of arrests initiated on complaints that she filed and that Richard filed alleging assault and battery involving fists, knives, and guns. The 1945 arrest noted that Richard was a “pool room operator.” Subsequent arrests show him as a “laborer” and with no occupation.
The social drama involving Richard, Anna, and their associates stretched out over six years. In 1948, Richard pressed charges against his wife alleging barratry (harassment via litigation, a misdemeanor). An Allegheny County grand jury indicted Jeanette describing her as “a common barrator” who “unlawfully did then and there vex and annoy the good people of this Commonwealth with unjust and vexatious suits.” According to the indictment, Richard was charged multiple times and the charges dismissed. Jeannette Gauffney refused to testify at a December 1948 hearing.
Despite the many legal cases, the couple appears to have remained married. Richard disappeared from public records in the 1950s. Jeanette died in 1971 in the same building that housed her pool room, 1929 Wylie Avenue. According to an obituary published in The Pittsburgh Press, Jeanette had two children, five grandchildren, and three great grandchildren. She also was the “beloved wife of Richard.”
Because so much of the Hill District’s social and economic lives took place off the books, we may never have a complete and accurate picture of what life was like there in the twentieth century. One thing is clear however: the building at 2141 Wylie Avenue has a much more significant and complex history than the single story presented in the 2019 National Register of Historic Places nomination form.
The building at 2141 Wylie Avenue occupies a place in history that goes beyond the 1945-1968 period of significance and its associations with entertainment history and Gus Greenlee. The entrepreneurs who owned businesses in the brick-and-mortar envelope were part of a larger historic context, one largely missing from the National Register nomination. Numbers gambling was integral to Pittsburgh’s twentieth century social, economic, and political history. It was a cultural system that went far beyond small daily bets and the fortunes they helped to build.
Contrary to what the National Register form’s authors wrote, the numbers racket was much more than an informal banking system and illegal vice. The numbers as a cultural system far exceeded the “investment opportunity” to which they reduced it. The numbers permeated much of the Hill District’s “seamless web of life,” comprising what some numbers scholars describe as eight value areas: power, wealth, enlightenment, well-being, skill, affection, respect, and rectitude. As historian Benjamin Hayllar observed, Pittsburgh’s numbers rackets funded Pittsburgh ward politics for much of the twentieth century and it was a major employer among the city’s European immigrants and African Americans. Businesses like the Green Boot, Richard Gauffney’s Auburn Palace, and the multiple Crawford Grills not only benefitted from numbers revenues; they were integral parts of the system, the cultural process.
That cultural process enabled the fluid racial barriers among patrons of the various Hill District venues like the Crawford Grill No. 2 which became known as “black and tan clubs.” The preservationists and earlier historians duly noted that element in their work. What they have overlooked is the story about the complicated social and economic conditions that made it possible for entrepreneurs like Richard Gauffney (and Gus Greenlee and Woogie Harris) to have white employees working as numbers runners and writers and at their bars and gaming tables. Remember, the 1930 raid on Gauffney’s Auburn Palace netted two African Americans (Gauffney and Johnson) and one white Hill District Jew (Solomon/Solominsky).
The danger of the Crawford Grill No. 2’s single story is evident throughout the 2019 National Register nomination. The nomination has reinforced that single story, even before the National Park Service has approved the listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Shortly after the form was completed, local newspapers (e.g, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), Pittsburgh’s NPR affiliate WESA, and national preservation organizations (e.g., National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers) reported on the nomination and the preservationists’ research setting the stage to reinforce the single story even more.
I won’t speculate about why the Crawford Grill No. 2 National Register nomination glosses over this significant history or why its coverage of the years between 1945 and the turn of the twenty-first century also appears to be missing significant material; I’ll leave that to more experienced Pittsburgh historians and people with a stake in the neighborhood and its stories. I will note that these omissions erase important parts of the building, neighborhood, and city history while also sanitizing the single story by making it palatable to twenty-first century readers, agency reviewers, and the philanthropists that preservationists hope will rehabilitate the building.
The first thing that I wrote about the Crawford Grill and the National Register nomination was a January 2020 Facebook post on my own timeline. Preservationists involved in the project read my post and replied defensively. One wrote in a direct message, “My jobs is to save the damn buildings from neglect and make sure the opportunity for a new generation of black artists will be inspired by those that came before them.” He added elsewhere, “It’s not a definitive history it’s an NR nomination!.” Another commented that the nomination had 175 footnotes and that “It is insulting to suggest that this was not a well researched and sufficiently balanced scholarly effort.”
If our historic preservation work that influences journalists, students, policymakers, and others isn’t definitive, then what is it?
UPDATE (September 2020): The Crawford Grill No. 2 was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on July 23, 2020. No substantive revisions to the draft nomination form published in 2019 (cited in this blog post) appear to have been made. In its blog post announcing the new listing, Pittsburgh Museums wrote:
The building is significant under two National Register criteria for Performing Arts because of its association with the Crawford Grill No. 2 jazz club, and as the most significant extant building of associated development by William “Gus” Greenlee. The nomination was prepared by Jeff Slack, AICP, of Time & Place LLC, and we congratulate him for the successful listing.
In approving the National Register nomination, the National Park Service made an amendment to the property’s significance statement (published in a “supplemental listing record“):
Amended Items in Nomination: The following corrections are made to this nomination: Section 8. The Period of Significance is 1945-1968. The significant date of 1917 is dropped. The area of significance Ethnic Heritage: Black is also added as the most significant extant resource representing the broad contributions of the Crawford Grill #2 venue that served as a center of Black social life within Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood.