Downtown Kaufmann's added to Carnegie's miniature railroad

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Lifestyle 2 weeks ago

When Kaufmann’s opened its Downtown department store at Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street in 1885, a local newspaper called the five-story, Renaissance-style building “an ornament to the city.”

Called the Grand Depot, the building represented the big time for Jacob and Isaac Kaufmann, two German brothers who began as peddlers selling goods door to door, then opened a South Side tailoring shop called J. Kaufmann & Brother on Carson Street in 1871.  Two more brothers, Morris and Henry, also came to America to build the business.

This year, for the first time, a model of the Grand Depot is featured in the miniature railroad and village exhibit that opens Thursday at the Carnegie Science Center on the North Shore. Patty Everly, curator for historic exhibitions, spent several months researching the building through photographs and archives.  

A square-faced clock stood outside the building.

“The clock we designed ourselves to match the original clock,” not the wall-mounted one that has become the building’s signature piece, Ms. Everly said.

Nikki Wilhelm, miniature railroad program presenter, spent more than a month creating the Grand Depot’s 15 store windows using dollhouse furniture. Windows depict a display of hats, a man hanging Victorian wallpaper, a nursery with toys, a lady seated on a sofa next to a tea cart and a garden. Ms. Wilhelm hand-painted the furniture and chose the Victorian-era wallpapers.

None of the windows are Christmas-themed because the village represents Pittsburgh on a summer day. That tradition goes back to Charles Bowdish, who built the original miniature railroad and village at his Brookville home in 1919 to entertain wedding guests.

The miniature railroad and village is 83 feet long and 30 feet wide. Every 4 minutes, the display goes from light to dark. Visitors can blow the Pennsylvania Railroad’s train whistle.

This year is the 100th anniversary of a beloved exhibit that has become a lesson in the architectural history of Western Pennsylvania. It includes long-gone landmarks such as Forbes Field, the Sharon Steel Mill, the first Point Bridge and the S.S. Grandview Ship Hotel, which stood on the Lincoln Highway. Landmarks still standing include the original Primanti’s restaurant in the Strip District, Fallingwater and the H.J. Heinz homestead.

As for the Grand Depot, its entrance is illuminated by a Swarovski crystal chandelier. Back in 1885, store ads called the Grand Depot “the largest and finest outfitting establishment in America.” Its grand opening on Oct. 24, 1885, drew thousands of people into the store, where they saw elegant displays of fans, flowers, parasols and Asian decorations inspired by the success of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “The Mikado,” first performed in March 1885. 

Atop the towering cupola stood a 15-foot-tall bronze statue of Liberty holding a torch lit by a gas flame. Flanking the main entrance were two 8-foot-tall  bronze statues — the goddesses of Justice and Commerce.

Inside the main entrance on Smithfield Street, visitors saw a blue and gold lacquered chandelier with 30 incandescent lights.

The building, said the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, was “a monument to the enterprise and thorough business principles of the Kaufmann brothers.”


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