Memories from Kaufmann’s Clock

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I was deeply saddened to learn Downtown Pittsburgh’s last major anchor department store soon will be nothing but a memory.

After about 128 years in the same location at 400 Fifth Ave., Macy’s will close the iconic Downtown Pittsburgh store which first opened in 1887 as Kaufmann’s. The company made the announcement July 13, 2015.

For decades, the Downtown location stood out for its valued traditions: Christmas window displays, visits with Santa, a holiday parade, the Arcade Bakery, the Tic Toc restaurant and much more.

Generations of Pittsburghers have met under Kaufmann’s Clock, too.

Because of Macy’s commitment to retaining a Downtown Pittsburgh store after the company bought The May Co. — the longtime parent company of regionalized department stores such as Kaufmann’s, Filene’s (Boston) and Marshall Field’s (Chicago) — we were afforded a chance to continue making memories — albeit under the Macy’s nameplate for the last nearly nine years.

But soon, like Horne’s and Gimbels before it, the Kaufmann’s and Macy’s names will disappear from the Downtown Pittsburgh retail landscape.

While there is much to discuss about how and why the company made this decision to close Pittsburgh’s last large anchor store, and on the Downtown retail climate as a whole, I want to solely focus on memories.

I didn’t grow up in a time when people flocked Downtown to Fifth Avenue and nearby streets to shop at Gimbels, Horne’s, Kaufmann’s or Jenkins Arcade — the way my mom recalls doing with her family.

It wasn’t until I moved away from Pittsburgh that I realized how special Downtown Pittsburgh’s Kaufmann’s — later Macy’s — was.

Creaky floors, the Westinghouse elevators and wooden escalators gave so much charm to the mundane task of shopping for clothing. Having lunch at the Tic Toc restaurant and grabbing thumbprints at Arcade Bakery are things shoppers can’t do at Ross Park Mall or the Mall at Robinson or any suburban mall Macy’s.

There aren’t window displays at the South Hills Village Macy’s with whimsical holiday scenes.

In a world of corporate sameness, the Macy’s in Downtown Pittsburgh added uniqueness.

Light Up Night and those holiday windows
Light Up Night is one of my most favorite days of the year. For the last several years, I’ve taken the day off work and have headed into Downtown Pittsburgh in the afternoon to begin celebrating the kickoff to the holiday season.

Part of that holiday spirit included window displays at Kaufmann’s (and later Macy’s). With so much to do Downtown that evening, I’ve only had one chance to watch the unveiling of the windows.

It was 2013. Gloria Gaynor performed and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle spoke.

Then, the throngs of people in attendance began counting down until the bright red curtains were pulled off to usher in another season of holiday cheer, and a new generation of Pittsburghers created memories.

The last several years, Macy’s has placed the same displays in windows for passersby. But they’ve had a local feel: skaters at PPG Place, shoppers under the Kaufmann’s Clock, fireworks celebrating First Night.

In one window, a child was shown watching black and white footage (from “Miracle on 34th Street”) of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on an old television as a Macy’s elf balloon moved overhead. Out of the window in the room where the child was, onlookers could see an image of Pittsburgh’s three sister bridges.

And, of course, Virginia’s mission to help write letters to Santa was prominently displayed in another window.

Several years back, I purchased from a seller on eBay four papier-mâché-type carolers once used in a Kaufmann’s window display. I’ve yet to showcase them at Christmas time, instead keeping them safely packaged away.

Speakers above the windows on Smithfield Street likely won’t play holiday tunes this year. Lights won’t shine down on whimsical displays showcasing some of Pittsburgh’s most beloved landmarks. No musician will sing and no crowd will count down. There will be no window encouraging passersby to believe.

Just taste those thumbprint cookies at Arcade Bakery
As Pittsburgh bakeries go, Arcade is top notch.

Whenever I visited the bakery, there always was a crowd: Downtown office workers picking up cakes and lunch, families taking home thumbprint cookies, husbands sipping a Coke and eating a doughnut while their wives shopped.

I always ended up with plenty of their thumbprint cookies. These sweet treats offered a generous amount of icing and came with or without jimmies (chocolate or rainbow).

Their cakes and doughnuts were just as wonderful. No mass-produced product at a big-box grocery store could compete. Only one other locally owned bakery could compete and that place closed in the late 2000s.

“Meet me under Kaufmann’s Clock”
I’ve met up with a few people over the years under Kaufmann’s Clock.

I once drove by as a bride and groom were having pictures taken with the clock.

But one of my most favorite memories of the clock was in May 2013 — the 100th anniversary of the iconic timepiece.

Macy’s hosted a weekend-long celebration with special items and a block party on Smithfield Street.

Spending the day with my mother shopping Downtown, having lunch at Tic Toc and taking home Arcade treats made that day extra special. We’ve shopped at the Downtown store at other times, but that day was special.

As we ate at Tic Toc, my mother reminisced of the days she would shop at Kaufmann’s and Gimbels (she apparently wasn’t much of a Horne’s shopper).

More than memories
Along with the charm of the structure, the thumbprint cookies, the clock and slow elevators, I was drawn to the Downtown Pittsburgh store because of its employees, selection and organization.

A few workers on the men’s floor would recognize me as I browsed. One remembered items I previously purchased and asked how the pants or shirts were.

My mother would wait in a long line for a specific employee on the woman’s floor simply because the worker was extremely outgoing and friendly. The worker once recognized me in another business in the city.

Racks of clothing were organized neatly by size and style, and the large floors allowed for ample space — unlike suburban Macy’s, where clothing is in disarray, and racks are piled close to one another to get as much on the floor as possible.

Clock keeps ticking
Before Macy’s announced the closing, I was excited for what the Big Store — once the nickname of the Downtown Kaufmann’s building — would become.

Macy’s was to occupy the first four floors with a hotel and apartments above that.

In news stories published following Macy’s announcement, the building developer said the company was surprised the retail store was backing out of the project.

A Macy’s executive — in a prepared statement — said the department store’s departure would allow for a “holistic” project.

It seems as though retail will be sought for some portion of the lower levels where Macy’s would have been. Perhaps there is a chance for the Tic Toc and Arcade Bakery to find new life in this new plan?

While department store shoppers won’t browse clothing racks, grab a bite to eat or take home a dozen thumbprints any longer at the corner of Fifth and Smithfield in Downtown Pittsburgh, Kaufmann’s Clock will continue to tick just as it has done for more than a century, ushering in new memories for dwellers.

I’ll hold close my memories of Arcade thumbprints, Christmas window displays and shopping bags under Kaufmann’s Clock.

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