Holiday shopping with the most choices and the highest quality goods used to mean a trip Downtown. There, at one point, 10 or so large department stores plus specialty shops and discounters vied for Western Pennsylvania shoppers’ hard-earned dollars.
Now, as an urban-sized Target discount store prepares to open in a corner of the elegant Kaufmann’s department store building on Smithfield Street — a massive structure that has already been converted to include space for apartments and a hotel — memories of breakfasts with Santa and getting a shoeshine near the Fifth Avenue entrance are starting to fade.
But the department stores have left their mark on the Pittsburgh landscape, with massive buildings still standing as an ode to a different time, when fortunes were made selling gloves and ready-to-wear dresses and the grander the structures, the more customers liked being there.
Downtown Pittsburgh as a shopping destination started humbly enough with a store called Perkins — the city’s first department store, according to a Sept. 26, 1936, article in the Post-Gazette.
Thomas Perkins, a traveling watch and clock repairer, had opened a store at the Point, address unknown, shortly after 1800. It sold fabrics, sewing supplies and even photographic daguerreotype portraits. “Pittsburgh’s gay young blades and their sweethearts considered it great sport Saturday afternoons to swagger in and have a picture made,” according to the PG article. The shop burned down in the 1845 city fire.
From the ashes grew a different type of store that would eventually lead to the heyday of Downtown shopping as entrepreneurs of the day started small and over the decades added more space, more goods, more pizzazz. The era of the block-long, multi-story department stores began with something much smaller: tiny “dry goods” shops often owned by immigrants who sold fabric, sewing supplies called “notions” and a selection of other items including ready-to-wear men’s clothing, which had been mass produced as early as 1812.
In Pittsburgh, these tiny establishments (the first Kaufmann’s store had dimensions of roughly 17 by 28 feet, or about 476 square feet and perhaps the volume of a tractor-trailer) dotted the increasingly industrial city’s main streets and especially Market Street in Downtown.
The rise of machine manufacturing in the 1800s allowed goods that used to be made laboriously by hand, like clothing, to be mass produced faster and more cheaply. Industrialization also induced many people to leave their countryside farms and take manufacturing jobs in urban centers like Pittsburgh. Though the work was dirty and dangerous, the hours long and the wages low, for many people these jobs still represented an improvement on income before industrialization.
In the 1870s, production of women’s ready-to-wear clothing picked up, starting with the high-necked, long-sleeved blouses called shirtwaists. Advertisements for women’s ready-made shirtwaists begin to appear as early as July 1872, as evidenced by an edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer posted on archival site Newspapers.com.
Stores, eager to expand their offerings and to appeal to female shoppers, began stocking the ready-to-wear clothing. A May 16, 1885, advertisement for Kaufmann’s proclaimed that store had begun stocking shirtwaists. Nationally, the number of female sales clerks went from 8,000 in 1880 to 58,000 in 1890, according to historian Vicki Howard in her book “From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store.”
The idea of the department store was a French import.
These stores — retail establishments that offered a wide range of consumer goods in different categories, with specialized staff and the ability to buy items within each department, with an emphasis on visual display and high levels of customer service — began in Paris. The concept picked up speed with Wannamaker’s in Philadelphia, which opened its “Grand Depot” in 1876, and the trend caught on across the country.
The progression into the more ambitious vision could be seen in Pittsburgh. As the Downtown stores outgrew their little Market Street shops, they expanded to multiple storefronts along Market. Then, shop owners moved their operations into larger buildings along major Downtown thoroughfares starting in the 1870s.
Horne’s, named for owner Joseph Horne, nabbed the first corner lot when it moved on Jan. 24, 1871 — the year the first Major League Baseball game was played — into the former Library Hall at the corner of Penn Avenue and Barkers Place (then called Barker Alley) between Sixth and Seventh streets, according to the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph in a Feb. 20, 1949, story.
The store hired a doorman, increased its stock of goods and expanded its workforce to 150 employees, including cash boys to run money to cashiers and run back with change. In 1893, Horne’s built its landmark six-story building at Penn Avenue and Stanwix Street — where a Christmas Tree display is still lit up annually — installed a hydraulic elevator, its own power plant and a pneumatic tube system to replace the cash boys, according to the Sun-Telegraph article.
Mercantile rival Kaufmann’s followed suit, moving to Smithfield Street between Fifth and Forbes avenues in 1879 — the year that inventor Thomas Edison publicly demonstrated incandescent lighting for the first time. Other stores began opening Downtown, quickly giving the neighborhood a critical mass of retail establishments.
Each of these ambitious department stores initially took up part of a city block and rose six to 12 stories high. Over the decades, store owners added buildings and floors to their original structures until a department store like Kaufmann’s took up the better part of a city block.
The stores were palaces.
Kaufmann’s 1930 redesign transformed its first floor into an Art Deco showroom of shimmering black Carrara glass columns, curved counters, commissioned murals, engraved glass and custom metalwork. Kaufmann & Baer had a fountain and clock in its 30-foot-high first floor, with a mezzanine for shoppers to “promenade” around.
Inside the stores, owners sold every imaginable luxury of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Horne’s 741,000 square feet of sales space over the years, according to the Department Store Museum website, held cosmetics, fragrances, jewelry, watches, accessories, shoes, scarves, purses, lingerie, sportswear, men’s clothing, candy, stationery, games, books, clocks, gourmet foods, radios, TVs and calculators plus having a beauty salon and an optical center. Shoppers could also browse men’s, women’s, children’s and infants’ clothing, coats, hats, luggage, cameras, lingerie, gifts, china, linen, crystal, drapery, rugs, lamps, pictures, sewing supplies, furniture, appliances, a ski shop, a pet shop and a music store. There was even an assembly hall. Free alterations, repairs and deliveries were usually part of the experience.
Speaking of experiences, Kaufmann & Baer had tennis and handball courts, as well as a baseball diamond on its roof.
Kaufmann’s stocked a grocery department at one time. It later created a store within its store — the Vendome, a designer clothing and high-end gift boutique. Gimbels offered something similar, an upscale Saks Fifth Avenue shop on its sixth floor.
Department stores encouraged women to browse with no pressure to buy. Babysitting services took care of small children while shoppers had tea in tea rooms or meals in restaurants, viewed fashion shows and art displays, attended exhibitions and listened to live music. There were classes on cooking and in the 1940s, charm schools. Department stores became economic linchpins and even tourist attractions, according to Louise Grimmer, senior lecturer of marketing at the University of Tasmania.
From the 1920s to the 1960s, Downtown shopping dominated the Pittsburgh area’s retail landscape, although Boggs & Buhl with 244,000 square feet of floor space catered to the high-end “carriage trade” on the North Side and Mansmann’s in East Liberty vied for shoppers’ attention to the east, as did smaller department stores like Cox’s and The Famous on the main streets of places like Braddock and McKeesport.
After World War II, many people left city centers for the cleaner air and larger yards of suburbia that could accommodate the boom in births in the exuberant period that followed years of war and the Great Depression. Suburbanites drove cars to get around, preferring the unlimited and convenient parking in nearby malls to taking public transportation to the congested downtown.
Department store owners didn’t give up their customers so easily. They first tried building stand-alone stores in suburbia, but most found they could not compete with the convenience of suburban malls. Department stores then moved into the new hot retail trend, enclosed shopping malls, as “anchors” in the 1970s and 1980s.
Many downtown department stores still thrived, but their influence was gradually waning.
In the 1950s, about 4,000 department stores operated nationwide, according to the 2009 book “We Were Merchants: The Sternberg Family and the Story of Goudchaux’s and Maison Blanche Department Stores” by Hans J. Sternberg with James E. Shelledy.
By 1965, discount stores with low-priced imports had higher annual sales than department stores, the book stated. This year, 2021, 49 department store businesses are operating, reported IBISWorld, an industry research company, which counted Target, Macy’s, JCPenney, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and other stores as being part of the department store market.
Large stretches of Pittsburgh’s Downtown deteriorated in the 1970s, in spite of the high-end retail still found there. Dirt, trash and vice discouraged people from wanting to shop there, although the annual unveiling of the Christmas windows still drew crowds, as did promotions by celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Kathie Lee Gifford, Bill Cosby and Julio Iglesias.
In the 1990s, Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy tried to revitalize Downtown retail, bringing in Lord & Taylor and Lazarus. But the merchandise at the new stores was not different enough nor was the parking convenient enough to attract the numbers of shoppers the stores needed to survive, and the effort failed.
Today, Downtown retail is a shadow of its former self, with a few clothing shops, the Burlington off-price department store and a handful of other stores. Buildings that once housed the retail behemoths stand empty or house offices and apartments.
One bright spot is the former Kaufmann’s building, into which the Minneapolis-based discount chain Target Corp. and the Burlington Township, N.J., off-price store Burlington plan to move.
As more retail moves online and this year’s holiday shoppers worry about supply chain slowdowns and viral transmission, take a moment to nod to the former retail meccas Downtown.
Northeast corner of Penn Avenue and Stanwix Street
Horne’s was Pittsburgh’s first high-end local department store, revealing its target market with words like “exclusive” and “distinctive” and stating in one 1930 advertisement, “The Horne box and the Horne label are symbols of excellence to all.” Its motto was “The Best Place to Shop After All.”
Founder Joseph Horne socialized with Pittsburgh’s business elite at places like the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, whose broken dam caused the devastating Johnstown Flood in 1889. The Horne’s store started in 1849 when Joseph Horne bought out his employer, F.H. Eaton, a dry goods merchant, and renamed the operation The Joseph Horne Co, with a building at 73 Market St. He expanded in that location until 1871, when he moved his retail business to Penn Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets.
In 1893, he built a six-story landmark at Penn Avenue and Stanwix. Two additions to the building came in 1903 and 1923.
Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores bought the Horne’s chain of stores for $123 million in 1994 and rebranded it as Lazarus. They also built a new Downtown building for Lazarus at Fifth Avenue and Wood Street that they called Lazarus On Fifth. Profits at the store never met expectations, and it closed in 1998.
Stanwix Street between Penn and Liberty avenues
The Jenkins Arcade opened to fanfare in 1911 with seven floors of locally owned clothing shops, restaurants, candy purveyors, professional offices and even a co-working space for inventors.
So many tenants were doctors and dentists that the arcade had 550 sinks at one time and was known as a “plumber’s paradise.” The building took up nearly a full city block bounded by Penn and Liberty avenues, and Stanwix Street and Fifth Avenue, just across from Horne’s.
When the city launched Renaissance II to combat Downtown’s decline in the 1970s, the old arcade found itself targeted. The city demolished the building in 1983 in spite of its significant foot traffic to make way for Fifth Avenue Place, which never drew the same number of shops nor shoppers.
Without the draw of the arcade, fewer people came to that end of Downtown, which hurt Horne’s sales, and without the affordable storefronts at the arcade, most of the small locally owned businesses that had tenanted there went belly up.
Sixth Street between Penn and Liberty avenues
Founded by German-Jewish immigrant Max Rosenbaum in 1868, the store started at 76 Market St. selling wholesale millinery. In 1880, Rosenbaum relocated to Fifth Avenue and Market Street, with Meyer Jonasson just northeast of it at Oliver and Liberty avenues. He enlarged the store at that location, but died in 1908.
In 1915, his son Walter built a new store on Sixth Street between Penn and Liberty avenues. Around 1949, National Department Stores bought Rosenbaum’s, as it had Frank & Seder and Lewin-Neiman. But in 1957, investors more interested in the energy sector took over National Department Stores, changing its name to International Mining. Although Rosenbaum’s experienced one of its best years in sales in 1959, International Mining closed the store in 1960.
606 Liberty Ave.
Meyer Jonasson, a German immigrant, started a small cloak business in 1873 in New York City. The business expanded into other cities, opening on one floor and a small balcony in Pittsburgh in 1899. In 1907, the store moved to new building on a parcel bounded by Oliver Street, Liberty Avenue and Market Street.
The retailer initially specialized in women’s coats and outwear but later became known for women’s suits and blouses. In 1940, store officials dropped “Meyer” from the name, going by Jonasson’s afterward and associating itself with “smartly dressed women” and “beautiful fashion.”
Jonasson’s quit Downtown in 1963, keeping just one other store in the metro area, a smaller one in the North Hills.
Wood Street and Sixth Avenue
The Pittsburgh branch of the New York department store chain opened in 1904 as “the Porcelain Palace,” so called because of its white enamel exterior. It was remodeled in 1935, then became known as “the New McCreery’s.” It closed in 1938.
Smithfield Street between Strawberry Way and Sixth Avenue
When one of Kaufmann’s four founders, Jacob, died, his heirs were not happy with the payout they received from the other three founders. They and some cousins left the Downtown landmark and built their own retail palace in 1914 two blocks away called Kaufmann & Baer.
The store lasted just 11 years before the Milwaukee-based Gimbels chain bought it. Gimbels was a no-frills value chain, appealing to budget-minded middle class shoppers interested in quality home appliances like irons and everyday garments like day dresses.
Going to the opposite end of the market, Gimbels bought Saks & Co. in 1923 and launched Saks as an upscale store inside of Gimbels in Downtown Pittsburgh. A subsidiary of British American Tobacco bought the Gimbels chain in 1973 and closed all Gimbels stores in 1986. The Downtown store is now an office building.
513 Smithfield St. between Fifth and Oliver avenues
After Gimbels bought Saks, Gimbels began offering Saks shoes, hats and clothing inside its Downtown Pittsburgh store. In 1949, Saks opened its own store inside Gimbels on the sixth floor.
Business went well, and Saks renovated bankrupt variety store W.T. Grant’s former building on Smithfield Street and moved there in 1977. In 2011, Saks closed this, its sole Pittsburgh location.
400 block of Smithfield St., across from Kaufmann’s
Russian-Jewish immigrants Jacob H. Frank and Isaac Seder (SEE der) started a small storeroom at 350 Fifth Ave. in 1905. They quickly had to expand and in 1907, they opened “The Fashion” store at 344 Fifth Ave. Two years later, they changed the name to Frank & Seder, according to Seder’s obituary in the Post-Gazette.
Their mottos were “Style, Quality at Lower Prices” and “The Right Goods at the Right Time and at the Right Price.”
A massive Downtown fire in 1917 destroyed the store and many others on that city block, so the founders built the current Frank & Seder building in 1918 and expanded there in 1929. They also opened branches in Philadelphia and Detroit.
National Department Stores, formed in 1920, bought Frank & Seder and another local retailer, Lewin-Neiman, in 1923. Seder died of a heart attack at age 48 in 1924. Frank died in 1933. A son of Isaac Seder became president. He left in 1956, and the store closed in 1959.
Smithfield Street between Fifth and Forbes avenues, east side
Two German-Jewish immigrants, Jacob and Isaac Kaufmann, opened a small storefront on the South Side in 1871. The brothers quickly expanded, opening shops on the North Side and Market Street and bringing two more of their brothers, Morris and Henry, from the old country.
In 1879, they opened at Smithfield Street and Fifth Avenue, Downtown, and began expanding there. Theirs was the first store in Pittsburgh to advertise a set price per item with a price tag rather than have clerks and customers negotiate prices.
In 1885, the brothers opened a new, 55,340-square-foot building at Fifth and Smithfield, calling it “Kaufmann’s Grand Depot,” according to an Oct. 26, 1885, article in the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette. In 1952, they added a 19-floor windowless annex along Fifth Avenue.
For decades, Kaufmann’s had an exclusive boutique on its top floor, the 11th, called the Vendome, which sold designer clothes like a “slim, black-and-white cutaway tweed [suit] stroked with velvet” for $98.95 in 1952 or a Pauline Trigere black wool dress fully lined with silk with a vertically rippled bodice in 1962. The Vendome also offered high-end gifts and housewares, like a Portuguese Faience relish tray ($12.50), a crystal carafe ($10) or an opaline pear candxy dish ($14) in 1954. Kaufmann’s catered to the aspirational customer, who was middle class and aspired to higher quality goods.
Edgar Kaufmann, son of one of the founders, sold the store to the St. Louis-based May Co. on his retirement in 1946. The May Co. ran the store under the Kaufmann’s brand until 2006 and opened more Kaufmann’s stores in Ohio, West Virginia and other parts of Pennsylvania. In 2005, Federated Department Stores bought May Co. for $11 billion. The next year, Federated rebranded Kaufmann’s as Macy’s.
305-309 Smithfield St.
Bennie Neiman launched his department store in 1896 in the Lower Hill, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Stevenson Street, a block from what is now PPG Paints Arena. Hugo Lewin started his retail business by 1904 at 303 Smithfield St.
In 1913, the two merged as Lewin-Neiman at a new building at 305 to 309 Smithfield St. selling mostly women’s and children’s clothing.
National Department Stores Inc. bought Lewin-Neiman and Frank & Seder in 1923. A new store called Boyd’s bought Lewin-Neiman in 1933 and operated at the same address until 1950, when it went out of business.
Laura Malt Schneiderman
Laura Malt Schneiderman