Teenie’s darkroomA modest house with a photographic memory

The house on Mulford Street in Homewood where Teenie Harris lived for many years while he was chief photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Famous photographer’s home in Homewood deserves special recognition, his family says

One day in the late 1930s or early ’40s, a small slender man stood on a sidewalk on Mulford Street in Homewood, raised a boxy camera to his eye and framed a picture of his house. The man valued elegance. He favored sharp suits, stylish fedoras, black shoes polished to a shine. Surely he was pleased by the details of the scene before him.

He cocked the shutter. Then, click.

The picture Charles “Teenie” Harris created that day shows a simple but refined 2½-story clapboard house distinct from its neighbors. A massive awning gracefully flows over a porch with brightly painted balusters. The lawn is perfectly trimmed. Shrubs line up with soldierly precision along a concrete walk. Parked on the street is a gleaming 1938 Cadillac, an exclamation mark with white-wall tires.

It’s an image that accurately reflects the aesthetic of the man whose labors would for decades remain largely unappreciated. Now that the world recognizes the immense value of Teenie Harris’ work, his children wonder: Can the Harris home at 7604 Mulford St. help to tell his story and create a broader understanding of the African American experience in Pittsburgh?

Teenie Harris’ portrait of Otho Brown, a boarder of the Harris family, in the house on Mulford Street circa 1931. (© Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive)

Day after day, year after year, he stepped out of this house, climbed into his car — often a Cadillac — and motored off to photograph life in the city’s Black community. From the 1930s to the mid-’70s, he documented birthday parties, baseball games, political rallies, protests, church events, press conferences, concerts, parades. He photographed people hanging out in restaurants, men playing checkers on the sidewalk, work crews, street scenes.

The list of celebrities he photographed includes Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Muhammad Ali. But his most moving photographs depict people whose presence would otherwise go unnoticed by history.

One such picture dates to the early 1930s and focuses on Otho Brown. Census records indicate he worked as a porter and laborer. Dressed in a light pinstriped shirt, suspenders and a plaid tie, he sits next to a window — perhaps in the Mulford Street house, according to a caption — and reads a newspaper. It’s a peek into a world recognized by few outside the city’s Black community.

Harris died in 1998. A few years later, the Carnegie Museum of Art acquired his collection of negatives, now preserved in the Teenie Harris Archive. But the house that served as a base of operations for much of his career seems forgotten, its white siding stained with grime, its porch enveloped by weeds and overgrown shrubs.

“It breaks my heart every time I see it,” said Harris’ daughter Crystal Pass.

Members of his family, including all three of his surviving children, believe the house deserves recognition, perhaps in the form of a plaque or official designation as a building of historic importance.

Charles “Teenie” Harris’s house on Mulford Street with his 1938 Cadillac parked in front. (© Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive)

‘Who lived there’

Melissa McSwigan, director emeritus of Preservation Pittsburgh, says the house certainly deserves to be a city historic landmark. “It could bring a real sense of Pittsburgh and community pride to have the house landmarked,” she said.

“This is National Register material. This one is a no-brainer.”

There’s nothing special about its structure, but that doesn’t matter, Ms. McSwigan said. Modest buildings like the one on Mulford Street “can help tell the stories of the people who lived there.”

And the Harris family story is worth telling, given their deep connections to Pittsburgh history.

It’s a sentiment shared by historian Carmen DiCiccio, who has conducted primary work in historic preservation for the state and for private companies. He said the Mulford Street house should be on the National Register of Historic Places.

“This is National Register material,” he said. “This one is a no-brainer.”

The process of gaining landmark status at the city level involves researching and writing a history of the house and those who lived there; obtaining a recommendation from the city’s historic review commission; and getting approval from the planning commission, city council and the mayor. Key to the process is working with the Harris family, Ms. McSwigan said, because the process begins with those who own the house, “but we’d be thrilled to collaborate with them.”

A family’s history

Teenie’s older brother, William “Woogie” Harris, bought the Mulford Street property and house in 1923 for $7,500, deed books show.

Woogie Harris emerged in a city blazing with the fires of industry — and with a nightlife fueled by music, dancing and, despite prohibition, booze. He was a VIP at clubs like the Paramount, a Lower Hill District joint owned by his pal, Gus Greenlee. The two men became pioneers in the city’s lucrative numbers racket.

Woogie used his earnings to support his family, help Black-owned businesses and buy property in the Lower Hill District, Homewood and Penn Hills.

In the early 1920s, brothers Teenie, Woogie and the eldest, George Harris, lived in a Wylie Avenue boarding house operated by their mother, Ella Mae, known as “Olga.” The Masio Hotel provided rooms to Black men who’d migrated to Pittsburgh to find whatever jobs were available to them. A 1920 census report reveals the hotel as a microcosm of the Great Migration, with boarders from Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., working as miners, porters, bellboys, hostlers, shoe shiners, janitors and laborers.

Ella Mae closed the hotel in the early 1930s and moved to Mulford Street. A 1934 Pittsburgh city directory lists Teenie as a resident there, too.

By 1938, directories identified Teenie as a photographer with a studio in the Hill District and a home on Mulford. Six years later, he married Elsa Lee Elliot. On Mulford Street, the couple raised their children: Ira Vann, Lionel, Crystal and Cheryl. (Teenie’s oldest son, Charles “Little Teenie,” came from his first marriage.)

A workaholic

The sheer volume of Harris’ archive implies the man worked constantly. It consists of approximately 80,000 negatives, which means he produced an average of more than five pictures each day of his 40-year career — a notable achievement given his habit of shooting only one frame at each event. He shot the majority for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s most influential Black newspapers.

“My dad, he was a very happy-go-lucky person, but he was a workaholic,” said son Lionel, 75.

Calls could come any time of the day or night. “I have to give it to my mother because I don’t know how she did it,” said daughter Crystal, 70. “He would get out of his bed and go take pictures … whenever they needed him. They would call if there was something that happened on the Hill or if somebody in town came through, like Walt Harper or Georgie Benson.”

Left:Top: Crystal Harris Pass, daughter of photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris. | Right:Bottom: Teenie's son, Lionel Harris. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

He often took family members on assignments. Lionel says he learned “every nook and cranny” in Pittsburgh on these outings. His father disliked waiting at traffic lights, so he drove around the city on back streets.

Lionel witnessed his father’s efficiency when he watched Teenie photograph a group of about 25 people. “He took those folks and had them all in different spaces, different spots,” Lionel said. “Bam! He took the picture and left. I said, ‘How do you do that?’”

“I just know where people should be,” his father replied.

Sometimes Teenie shot a picture, then hung around for fun. Elsa accompanied her husband on a job to photograph a social event.

“Well, how was it?’” Crystal asked her.

“Half the time I didn’t see him,” her mother replied. “He’s out there doing the Charleston, with the rubber legs.”

“He was just a clown,” Crystal said. “He liked to have a good time.”

‘Like magic’

Although work left him weary at day’s end, Teenie was attentive to his children. When Crystal was about 7, Teenie noticed she was unhappy and asked what was wrong.

“It just seems like everybody’s always doing something and not including me,” she said.

A self-portrait of Charles “Teenie” Harris in his home at 7604 Mulford St. in Homewood in the 1920s. (© Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive)

“What do you like to do?” he asked.

Crystal said she loved to watch old movies on television.

“Then we’ll watch them together,” he said.

Crystal remembers her father coming home at night and waking her so the two could sit in the glow of a TV and enjoy movies like “Top Hat” and “Swing Time.” Crystal was fond of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

On other nights, he descended to his basement darkroom. Surrounded by paint cans, a washing machine and other household items, he developed film, then slipped negatives in an enlarger to make prints in time for deadline. Images emerged in the dim red glow of a darkroom safelight. “It just seemed like magic,” Crystal said.

Sometimes people stopped by the Mulford Street house to view Teenie’s pictures and visit. His children remember singers Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne and Billy Eckstine. One visitor, wearing a long trench coat and a wide-brimmed hat cocked to the side, left a distinct impression on young Lionel.

“It scared me to death,” Lionel said. “I thought he was a gangster.”

The man was jazz musician Lionel Hampton — Lionel Harris was named after him. Hampton sat down at an upright piano in the living room and played a tune.

Cystal’s son, Arthur “P.J.” Pass, 48, spent much of his childhood at the Mulford Street house. He remembers the day a light-skinned man entered the front door.

“He had a little polo cap on,” P.J. said. “My grandfather had all types of photos on the dining room table for him. I said, ‘Granddad, who’s that?’ He says, ‘That’s August” — playwright August Wilson.’”

Spic and Span

Teenie was an “old school” parent, his children say. They were expected to return home once street lights flickered on. He often summoned his kids by standing on the porch, pursing his lips and blasting out a unique whistle heard all the way down the block.

Once he noticed Crystal’s fingernails gleaming with color. “Get that nail polish off your fingers,” he said. “That’s just for sporting women.”

“I wondered, ‘What the heck is a sporting woman?’” Crystal said.

Cleanliness was important. Cheryl “Tiny” Watson said her father made certain the house was well-kept. “I’d wake up in the morning and smell Spic and Span, and I knew he was cleaning the kitchen.”

He also kept the street and sidewalk swept clean, the lawn immaculate. He paid special attention to the hedges. “He would sit on the porch and notice a branch sticking up a bit too high, so he’d go get the clippers and trim it back,” Crystal said.

Once, while shaving in the family’s bathroom, Teenie looked out a window and saw a rat across the street. He dropped his razor, barreled down the stairs, through the front door and caught the rodent. “Everyone on the street was raving about it,” Cheryl said.

Family photos

Teenie shot a number of photos on Mulford Street. Several depict everyday life — little Cheryl clinging to her mother’s robe as she works in the kitchen, baby Crystal with a jack-o’-lantern, young Ira Vann and Lionel playing with a water hose. Others show the street’s residents, Black and white, posing in front of homes, or with their children. The neighborhood looks peaceful, but racial tensions flared on at least one occasion.

“Pow! He knocked the guy out. I’ll never forget that.”

On a warm evening in the early 1950s, Lionel and Ira Vann were playing catch in the street when an errant throw sent a baseball bouncing into the yard of a neighbor, who was relaxing on his porch. Teenie, on his own porch, called out to him, “Hey, can you throw the ball back for these boys?”

The neighbor refused and used a racial epithet.

“Next thing I know, my dad is flying across the street, up on the guy’s porch,” Lionel said. “Pow! He knocked the guy out. I’ll never forget that.”

Ageless Teenie

As a teenager, P.J. Pass and his friends often raced on foot down along the street. One day Teenie, in his late 60s, decided to join in. Teenie was an athlete in his youth and remained slim and spry in his later years. Still, P.J. worried.

“I said, ‘Granddad, I don’t think you should run,’” P.J.said.

“I’m running,” Teenie insisted.

“Then, all I saw was granddad’s shadow go right past me,” P.J. said. “He beat us all the way down the block.”

Other memories are more serene. Granddaughter Tina Harris, 58, remembers lying in a glider on the porch with her head in Elsa’s lap. “She’d rock me to sleep,” she said. “I had this blanket — I can still smell it.”

Family members say Teenie and Elsa enjoyed a special relationship. Teenie delivered morning coffee to his wife in the couple’s upstairs bedroom, Cheryl recalled. Elsa’s death in 1997 took a toll, she said. “He loved her so much.”

Teenie died on June 12 of the following year.

Elsa and Charles “Teenie” Harris in the bedroom of their home at 7604 Mulford St. in Homewood in 1987. (Randy Olson/The Pittsburgh Press)

The house’s future

Ira Vann was the last family member to live on Mulford Street. He purchased the property from his father’s estate for $1 in 2003. He died in 2019, and his girlfriend lived there awhile, family members say. It’s unclear if anyone lives there now. Knocks on the door go unanswered.

“I didn’t know how to address the situation with the house,” said Tina, Ira Vann’s daughter. Its market value is $20,000, according to Allegheny County records.

Family members say they’d like to fix up the place. Formal recognition as a place of historic importance would cement the house’s role in their father’s legacy, they say.

“It would be an honor for my dad,” Crystal said.

Charles “Teenie” Harris’ house on Mulford Street in Homewood circa 1945-1950. It appears that one of his beloved Cadillacs is parked in the garage. (© Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive)

Steve Mellon: smellon@post-gazette.com