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Will Kaufmann's Clock Be Dearly Departmented?

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With Pittsburgh's storied Downtown Kaufmann's department store facing new ownership, local preservationists are weighing plans to protect the structure and its most prominent feature -- the legendary Kaufmann's clock at Fifth and Smithfield. One likely option: having the building designated as an historic structure under city law.

 

 

"We're still weighing our options right now," says Dan Holland of the Young Preservationists Association, whose 120 members encourage young people to help protect the city's architectural heritage. Built in 1898, Kaufmann's "has been a landmark for over 100 years" says Holland. "But right now, there's nothing to prevent them from changing the exterior -- especially that clock."

 

Prompting Holland's concern is the purchase of Kaufmann's, along with 330 stores nationwide, by Federated Department Stores. The Downtown Kaufmann's, once the flagship of a celebrated local mercantile empire, will be re-labelled as a Macy's in 2006.

 

While it may seem unlikely Federated would remove the beloved Kaufmann's clock, Holland says, "You never know what might happen." Already, out-of-town retail chains have eroded Downtown's character, he says. Historic buildings were razed to make way for Federated's now-shuttered Lazarus on Wood Street and the also-closed Lord & Taylor on Smithfield Street was built inside the historic Mellon Bank building. During that renovation, the bank's prized marble interior was destroyed. Cincinnati-based Federated is "not from here, and they have no stake other than our money," Holland says. "The question becomes, 'What is their commitment to the city's historic legacy?'"

 

Any citizen can petition to have a building designated a city historic structure; agreement from the property owner is not necessary. The designation must be approved by the city's Historic Review Commission, city council and planning and zoning commissions. If the designation is given, city officials would have to approve any future changes to a building's exterior -- including the removal of the clock.

 

Federated did not return calls for comment. In a July 28 statement, however, Federated Chairman and CEO Terry J. Lundgren said, "We respect that May Company's regional store names are deeply rooted in their communities, we appreciate the heritage and traditions associated with those names, and we expect to continue to play an important role in [those] communities."

 

Cathy McCollum of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation says that while her organization would likely support Holland's effort, "We'd probably recommend doing a national designation instead." Being listed on the National Register of Historic Places carries additional protections, such as forbidding the use of tax incentives to alter a registered structure. Besides, McCollum says, city officials "are the same people that de-designated Fifth and Forbes," during Mayor Tom Murphy's controversial attempt to redevelop the historic retail district. "So we lack confidence in their ability to follow regulations in the face of political pressure."

 

Those interested in the Young Preservationists' efforts can visit the organization's Web site, www.youngpreservationists.org.

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