Standing beneath the Kaufmann’s/Macy’s Clock and looking directly across Smithfield Street allows one to see a fine example of Chicago School architecture in the heart of Downtown Pittsburgh. Built in 1918 by Jacob Frank and Isaac Seder to replace their original 1907 store that was destroyed by fire, this historic building takes us back to a time when emporiums with different departments of merchandise became very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mass transit – such as trains and streets cars – made travel easier into downtown, and elevators made it easier to get from one floor to the next. These innovations lead to a golden age for downtown retailers. Clever window displays and printed advertising helped to increase the draw of traffic, especially around the holidays.
Frank and Seder were Russian Jewish immigrants who opened their first store in Pittsburgh in 1907, and their business survived there until 1958. They did well enough in fact to also expand into Philadelphia, Detroit, and New York City, before finally ending their run of success in 1959. National retailers had by then invested heavily in suburban areas and this made it much more difficult for urban department stores to survive. This was in large part because of the shift away from public transit to the more universal use of automobiles for travel. The reason was obvious: malls offered free parking, downtowns did not.
Although the Frank & Seder Department store sat directly across from Kaufmann’s, the two stores were known to help each other out. There is an illuminating story about how during a strike by sanitation workers, Kaufmann’s was allowed to store all of their garbage on the roof of Frank & Seder’s until the strike ended, thus not blocking any customers from entering the store.
Up until 2014, the Frank & Seder department store housed many different retail store and offices. Their store in Detroit has be rehabilitated and is now part of Loft of Merchants Row, which is a hopeful lesson here, because the current owners, Oxford Development, has plans to demolish the building and replace it with a glass tower building. These plans seem to be on hold, so hopefully there is now an opportunity for a meaningful discussion on repurposing this handsome building and restoring it to the luster it once enjoyed in the heart of the downtown retail district.
Written by Matthew Craig, Executive Director of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh