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Jacob Kaufmann was just 19 when he left everything he knew—his family and native Germany—to immigrate to the U.S. His goal was simple: find a way to pay for his brothers to join him.
Jacob arrived in Pittsburgh in 1868 and immediately got to work. His first job was peddling goods along Carson Street in East Birmingham, today’s South Side. Labor- intensive and far from glamorous, it served the purpose. Within a year he was able to send for Isaac. Then the pair, having opened a tailor shop in the same neighborhood, sent for Morris (in 1872) and finally Henry (in 1876).
Once reunited, the four brothers would go on to build an enduring legacy that still stands today. The story of Kaufmann’s Department Store is the story of America at the turn of the century: how one family’s aspirations and drive to succeed could capture the heart and imagination of an entire city.
That’s exactly the spirit that Patty Everly, curator of historic exhibits at Carnegie Science Center, brings to life as the original downtown Kaufmann’s building takes up permanent residence within the Science Center’s popular Miniature Railroad & Village®.
Comprised of historically accurate and meticulously crafted replicas—including fan favorites such as Allegheny Observatory, the Crawford Grill, Fallingwater, and Forbes Field—the Miniature Railroad & Village recreates scenes that capture the essence of western Pennsylvania from the 1880s through the late 1930s.
This year’s addition is particularly special because it coincides with the iconic exhibit’s 100-year anniversary. It’s no wonder Everly felt some pressure.
“We really wanted something grand for the anniversary,” she says, “and we thought of Kaufmann’s. It’s architecturally a unique building, and it tells the history of Jewish immigrant merchants who created this magnificent company that is still so deeply ingrained in our culture.”
Everly and her team did their homework, seeking out old photographs and archival records from Heinz History Center and various newspapers. Using that material as a guide, they 3D printed an as-close-to-perfect-as-possible scale model.
“It’s architecturally a unique building, and it tells the history of Jewish immigrant merchants who created this magnificent company that is still so deeply ingrained in our culture.”
– Patty Everly, curator of historic exhibits at Carnegie Science Center
With the replica in hand, the finishing touches—sourcing the appropriate dollhouse furniture to populate the windows, for instance—became the priority. “In the Miniature Railroad & Village’s world,” Everly explains, “it’s always summer in the urban area, so although we won’t have holiday decorations, you will see the windows full of toys, flowers, garden furniture, and people.”
Dubbed the Grand Depot or Big Store, the downtown Kaufmann’s building officially opened its doors at Smithfield Street between Fifth Avenue and Diamond Street, now Forbes Avenue, in 1885.
As entrepreneurs, the Kaufmanns were larger than life. And so, too, was their shop. There were display windows decorated with changing fashions for the changing seasons. And atop the five-story structure—right at the corner of Smithfield and Fifth—was a turret on which perched a 25-foot-tall bronze Lady Liberty. She was not alone. The Goddesses of Justice and Commerce also hovered above the busy street.
The statues packed a huge wow factor and also symbolized the Kaufmanns’ approach to doing business.
“Instead of haggling,” Everly says, “Kaufmann’s had price tags on their merchandise, so you knew up front what things cost. That was new. And because Pittsburgh was a city of immigrants, they had interpreters in the store to help with customer service.”
But perhaps the store’s most memorable feature was its clock. Back then, it was free-standing and quickly became its own cultural touchstone. “Meet me under the Kaufmann’s clock” was as much a part of the local lexicon as Pittsburghese.
As the brothers acquired more property, they ultimately opted to demolish the original store. They unveiled a new, 13-story building in 1913, but much to the public’s dismay the clock was noticeably absent. The outcry came fast and loud. Wasting little time, they set things right. Later that same year, Kaufmann’s added a 2,500-pound bronze clock onto its façade, and there it remains.
The early 1900s marked the golden age of shopping for the city’s Golden Triangle. Competition between Kaufmann’s, Boggs & Buhl, Frank & Seder, Gimbel’s, and Horne’s was fierce. But all have long since closed up shop.
Fast forward to 2019, and Kaufmann’s Grand on Fifth —as the building is now known—has welcomed its first tenant, Even, a 150-room health-and-fitness themed hotel.
But some things never change. So, whether it’s on Smithfield Street or in the Miniature Railroad & Village, Pittsburghers can still meet at the Kaufmann’s clock.
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