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Restarting The Clock: Renovation Of The Historic Kaufmann’s Building Is Complete

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
“Meet me under the clock”: Clockmaker Roger Gordon of Titusville, Pa. restored the iconic timepiece at the corner of Fifth and Smithfield Avenues outside the former Kaufmann’s department store, now apartments, a hotel, and retail spaces.

Kaufmann’s Department Store is once again open for business in Downtown Pittsburgh: An extensive renovation converted the 13-story historic building into 311 apartments, parking, and two floors of shopping.

The Even Hotel has occupied two floors since late 2019, but redevelopment of the rest of the building had stalled in recent years. Passing the former Kaufmann’s presented the city’s entire narrative—glory, ruin, the struggle to become something new—in a few city blocks. Sheets of plywood blocked plate-glass windows where generations of children once gaped at stunning Christmas displays, trash swirled at the locked revolving doors, and the famous bronze clock didn’t tell the time.

But in 2020 Philadelphia-based developer Lubert-Adler invested $40 million to finish restoring the local landmark.

“We stepped into a project that was already underway and required an intense amount of effort,” Dean Adler, the company’s CEO, said in a press release.

Chris McElwee is president of Fastrack Construction, which completed the renovation. He said it was important for Pittsburgh to return Kaufmann's to fully active use. “This project just sat for years,” he said. “If it didn’t get completed … it would just be empty.”

A previous Philadelphia-based developer, Core Realty, purchased Kaufmann’s in 2015 when Macy’s announced its closure after eight years in the building. While the company did build some apartments, there was no parking or amenities, andthe work came to a standstill, McElwee said.

When his company came on board last year, McElwee said there wasn’t much of the old Kaufmann’s left: the elevator doors, some old books, a big, brass K in one of the floors. Fastrack crews restored what they could and then tried to recreate some of Kaufmann’s grandeur from photos, installing old wood floors and tin ceilings.

“We wanted to bring back the heart and soul of Kaufmann’s,” McElwee said. Importantly, that included the Kaufmann's clock, itself an iconic presence Downtown. “There’s probably only one guy that can fix that clock.”

Clockmaker Roger Gordon, of Roger Gordon Clockmakers Limited, has been fascinated by clocks since he was an 11-year-old kid in Titusville, PA. He works on clocks across the eastern United States and got a call from Fastrack “out of the blue” last year, asking him to come and evaluate the one at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street.

He was no stranger to the timepiece: “You can’t hardly be from western Pennsylvania and not be aware of the Kaufmann’s clock,” he said.

Gordon removed the accumulated dirt and dust of several decades, and replaced electric works and the controller, which moves the clock’s minute hand with a low-voltage pulse every 60 seconds. He took off one of the 150-pound clock faces to regild it, and he waited for a low-wind day to regild another while it was still attached.

“I view myself as a temporary custodian,” said Gordon, who said his job was to ensure that a living piece of history makes it to the next generation to tell them the time. “It becomes part of you.”

Target plans to open its 22,000 square-foot store on the ground floor this spring, and the announcement of a second-floor retailer is expected soon. Developer Lubert-Adler said it may open a co-working space that would be open to the public if the retailer's plans leave enough room.