It’s unusual for local news to trump Sunday football, so when journalists Marylynne Pitz and Laura Malt Schneiderman managed to do that following a Steelers game, they knew they were on to something.
Shortly after Macy’s closed the former Kaufmann’s store downtown in late 2015, the journalists collaborated on a digital project for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Pitz, an art and architecture reporter, and Schneiderman, a web developer, created “The Kaufmann Legacy,” a digital collection of text, photos and artwork detailing the family’s professional and philanthropic efforts.
As soon as the website launched, “the comments started blowing up, and we started getting phone calls and emails,” Schneiderman said. “Then we looked at the page views, and the page views were higher that day for our story than for the Steelers.”
“It’s a rare moment,” Pitz said.
After noticing that 40,000 unique viewers had come to learn more about the Kaufmann family and the eponymous department store, Pitz and Schneiderman pitched the idea of a book to the University of Pittsburgh Press. Months later, a contract was signed, and extensive research began.
Schneiderman and Pitz realized their work on “The Kaufmann Legacy” only scratched the “very surface” of what there was to know, they said. Thanks to trips to the Heinz History Center and Fallingwater (a Laurel Highlands home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Kaufmann family), Schneiderman and Pitz gained insight into the Kaufmanns’ regional impact.
The journalists shared those details in a new book, “Kaufmann's: The Family That Built Pittsburgh’s Famed Department Store.”
Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press on Oct. 18, the 263-page book recounts how brothers Jacob and Isaac Kaufmann joined a community of 19th-century German Jewish merchants — many of whom also arrived in western Pennsylvania with dreams of starting anew — and became millionaires and local icons in mere decades.
“You really had to have drive and work ethic and vision to make all of that happen,” Pitz said of the brothers’ efforts. “Lots of people came here and peddled. Only a fraction of them succeeded and reached the pinnacle of success that the Kaufmanns did.”
“And only one of them was the last one standing,” Schneiderman said of the business’ ability to remain a viable department store years after shoppers largely migrated online.
Even with the Kaufmanns’ financial climb, “behind this enterprise is a family that sort of embodies the glittering heights and the lowest lows,” Schneiderman said. “They were so successful, they functioned so well as a family, a taste-making family, and a family trying to educate the public. At the same time, they had such tragedy in their lives and such dysfunction in some respects. It was really sort of the extremes of the American experience embodied in one family.”
Vignettes, footnotes and photographs within “Kaufmann's: The Family That Built Pittsburgh’s Famed Department Store,” give readers insight into the locally celebrated family. But while scouring the book or visiting Fallingwater offers hours of fascination, Schneiderman and Pitz hope there’s a larger takeaway.
This small group of individuals created a generational impact, Schneiderman said.
Pitz agreed: “The people who built Kaufmann's elevated their customers’ tastes, educated them about quality and gave back to the community in a myriad of ways, and we're all richer for that.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.