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Gimbels gets one more bow

Friday activities will blend nostalgia, progress Downtown

Sunday, November 17, 2002

By Gary Rotstein, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Somehow, Gimbels could never quite measure up to Kaufmann's, its Smithfield Street competitor for 60 years that boasted better merchandise, stronger sales and even a more attention-getting clock.

As a subject of historical significance, Gimbels also suffered by comparison. It attracted little interest from the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania when it closed up shop 16 years ago, yet the mere transfer of local administrative operations by Kaufmann's owners to another city this year prompted the society to load up on the store's records and photos.

Plan are to restart the old Gimbels clock on Friday as part of the festivities. (Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette)

But Friday, as a precursor to the Light Up Night festivities that once included Gimbels holiday window displays, the old department store will finally get its due.

Representatives of the historical society will be stationed inside the old Gimbels building to receive any photos and paperwork from the public that relate to the former store or the six other Gimbels that existed locally. They were among 36 closed or sold by the national chain in 1986.

Former store employees are being encouraged to join in a 1 p.m. ceremony in which Mayor Tom Murphy will flip a switch to reactivate the four-sided clock that stood three stories above the Gimbels entrance at Sixth and Smithfield.

The timepiece cube had been broken and stuck in time -- different times on different faces, in fact -- for years even before Gimbels' final day of Downtown operation Sept. 13, 1986. Now it's linked to a global positioning satellite to keep accurate time above what is now the Burlington Coat Factory entrance.

That same blend of nostalgia and progress will come into play on Friday as McKnight Development Partners Inc., which bought the property in 1999, notes the 14-story building's history while officially christening it as the Heinz 57 Center.

The $25 million renovation undertaken by McKnight turned 791,000 square feet that had mostly been vacant since 1986 into prime Class A office space, now 97 percent filled. The North American headquarters of H.J. Heinz Co. occupies floors seven through 14.

"It's one of the biggest success stories of Pittsburgh, turning the white elephant building into one of Pittsburgh's premier corporate headquarters," said Bill Kolano, whose Kolano Design firm has marketed it for McKnight.

But Kolano recognizes that for a while, people will still think of it as the Gimbels building instead of associating it with Heinz and the other key office tenants -- United Healthcare and the Port Authority. Barnes & Noble and Eckerd Drugs are other street-level retailers with Burlington.

Before Gimbels is forgotten, it should receive its proper respect, said Kolano, whose aunt and grandparents worked there.

"It struck me as very interesting that here is a huge building that was a focal point of life in Pittsburgh ... and that there is virtually no information, or very little information, on it," he said. "We're trying to fill in the life stories that were in the building to complete the historic preservation."

Gimbels dominated Smithfield Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues Downtown, and its window displays were an integral part of many cherished holiday memories. (1960s photo, Post-Gazette archives)

Steve Doell, director of archives for the historical society, which operates the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, is uncertain why Gimbels was shorted in the archival collection compared with Kaufmann's and Horne's, from which extensive materials were obtained when it closed in 1995.

He's hopeful that former Gimbels employees can help now with papers, photos, newsletters, written remembrances or other memorabilia that's been forgotten in boxes and attics for years. The items would be cataloged and stored in acid-free folders and boxes in a climate-controlled environment.

The materials are intended for future historians, Doell said, rather than for museum display. So the society is looking for work-related items rather than merchandise sold in the store or any large objects like mannequins or cash registers.

"We're looking for anything that documents the functioning and work that went on at Gimbels," Doell said. "It's really hard to say what's going to show up, but we'll be there ready with boxes and white gloves."

Some former employees -- there were 1,900 in the seven Western Pennsylvania Gimbels at the time of closing -- have fond memories, even while still questioning why the chain had to shut down.

Gimbels was owned at the time by BATUS Inc., which also operated Saks Fifth Avenue and other chains from its Louisville, Ky., headquarters. In the 1980s, the three-dozen Gimbels stores were less successful than some of the other operations, and BATUS put them all up for sale in 1986, from New York to Milwaukee.

The Gimbels-Pittsburgh division, long known for offering basic merchandise at good value, had suffered more than retail competitors from the downturn of Western Pennsylvania's manufacturing sector. It depended more than Kaufmann's or Horne's on blue-collar consumers, and the growth of discount stores also squeezed it on the low end.

Local executives added more upscale merchandise in the mid-1980s to try to broaden the customer base, but any turnaround appeared too little or too late to satisfy the parent firm.

Three of the stores were sold to May Co., which converted them to Kaufmann's locations. The Century III Mall store was able to operate as the last Gimbels in the country until January 1988, but as a discount store under different ownership.

At the Downtown headquarters in the summer of 1986, some employees were bitter, others simply sad. Many were middle-aged and had a hard time finding other jobs locally during the era's economic downturn.

"I miss it," said Dolores "Dolly" Kokoski, who rode the bus from Conway in Beaver County to work in the stock office of the Downtown store five days a week for 10 years.

"We were more sad than anything that the old way was going out," she said, remembering the popularity of the chocolate-covered strawberries in the Gimbels candy store, the cream of potato soup in its tea room, the bargain basement and other staples that made the store popular.

Barbara Cloud, a longtime Pittsburgh shopper and fashion editor for The Pittsburgh Press, said the city had been blessed to have the three major department stores for so long, arranged in a triangle within the Golden Triangle.

"I think people might have thought of Gimbels as a stepchild, with some cheaper merchandise, but I thought they had good buyers that understood Pittsburgh customers. They shopped New York and brought things back for Pittsburghers," said Cloud, a Sunday columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"I think you went there thinking, 'Maybe it's not top of the line, but I'll get something for my money.' "

The building itself was completed in 1914 for Kaufmann & Baer, who were cousins of the Kaufmann's who left that family retailer to form their own. Gimbels acquired the store in 1926, and Saks Fifth Avenue later occupied space inside it on the sixth floor for many years.

Larry Altman was a merchandise manager from 1983 until helping to close the Downtown store and others in 1986. He remembers a forlorn walk with co-workers around the Three Rivers Arts Festival in June 1986, on the day the imminent closing was announced.

He thought Gimbels might have returned to profitability, if given the chance, but his experience there instead helped him open two men's clothing stores of his own since then, in the Galleria and Ross Park Mall.

"I learned a lot from Gimbels about Pittsburgh, that this is an area that does not cross-shop well. People from one end of the town tend not to go to the other end," Altman said. "I also learned it was a price-sensitive area, that there are limitations to what you can and can't do here."

One former department manager, still bitter about the loss of jobs from the closing, believes city officials were too passive in trying to do anything to save the store. She wants no part of Friday's nostalgic commemoration.

"What's the point now?" said the woman, who asked not to be identified.

But Kokoski feels differently, even though she may not have anything to share with historians. She has her boss' desk in her home, for which she paid $25 at the Downtown store's liquidation sale. Her husband wouldn't let her give it up, even if the historical society wanted it, which it doesn't. It also doesn't have a need for her saved Gimbels shopping bags.

But Kokoski figures a trip back to Sixth and Smithfield will do her some good anyway.

"It sounds nice," she said. "I might see some old friends."

(Anyone interested in learning more about what donated Gimbels items are of value to the historical society may call its acquisitions department at 412-454-6367.)

Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.

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