Iconic Downtown Pittsburgh clock is closing in on the century mark

| Monday, May 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Jackie Engel of Crafton Heights knew exactly where to go when her 10-year-old brother got lost.

Under the clock at Kaufmann's. Where else?

“When we would go to town to look at the Christmas windows and see Santa, that was the rule,” she says. “If you get lost, go to the clock, and we'll meet you there.”

The clock at Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street has fulfilled such a well-known civic role, its 100th anniversary is being celebrated May 17 and 18 by Macy's, current owner of the former Kaufmann's Department Store building.

The leaders of Macy's are so proud to be part of such a legendary Pittsburgh tradition, they are not irked at it still being called “Kaufmann's clock,” says Russell Schutte, executive vice president/regional director of stores for the Midwest region.

“That is what it is always going to be,” he says.

The two days of celebration will include special merchandise designed by Monroeville artist Linda Barnicott and Mercer County's Wendell August Forge, a visit from Mr. McFeely of “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood” fame, a performance by the Harlem Globetrotters and special prices on goodies at the Arcade Bakery and Tic Toc Restaurant.

But the clock is the real focus.

Artist Barnicott has done her fifth painting of the clock corner for the Macy's celebration.

“It's the meeting place for everybody,” she says. She used it as her bus stop in her early days in Pittsburgh.

Schutte remembers it the same way. It was on the route of the Library trolley when he and his family would come to into town from Bethel Park.

Jackie Engel says the role of the clock was invaluable 50 years ago when she and her 10 brothers and sisters went Downtown for a Christmas visit. As they were killing time, waiting for the line to see Santa to go down, her 10-year-old brother Michael disappeared.

No worry. Michael went to the clock, the way he was supposed to, and the family met him there.

“Everybody uses that spot for something,” Barnicott says, a bit of knowledge she discovered before doing the first painting of the building. It was supposed to be a portrait of a Pittsburgh trolley scene, but in thinking about the job, she decided to use the Kaufmann's corner, because of its significance.

When she was trying to decide on what to call it, a colleague suggested “Meet Me Under the Kaufmann's Clock,” which really turned the trolley shot into something different.

The current painting, “Celebrating Time and Tradition at Macy's,” is the first daylight painting of that scene, she says.

Although this particular clock has had 100 years to develop its renown, the “meeting” idea could well date to 1885, according to documents in the archives of the Historical Society in Western Pennsylvania.

Then, Kaufmann's was in a building that didn't extend all the way to the streets. At the Fifth and Smithfield corner was a free-standing, four-faced clock “which was said to have had a sign that read ‘Meet Me Under The Clock',” the documents say.

When the building was renovated in 1913, the free-standing clock had to go, but a public outcry forced Kaufmann's to add one on the building.

The current clock weighs about 2,500 pounds and was renovated and cleaned in 1987 in a process that took 10 weeks.

Macy's was not the owner then — the firm took over the Kaufmann's site in 2005 — but Schutte says he recalls hearing that the final step in cleaning the exterior of the clock was battering it with 1,000 pounds of ground corncobs.

“It takes off all the suet and bird droppings from all of those years,” he says.

Schutte has worked for 30 years for Macy's and is familiar with some of the chain's historic and significant sites. The Herald Square store is a square block of a building in New York City. The St. Louis store is in the Railway Exchange Building, and the Wanamaker Organ in the City Center Building in Philadelphia is a National Historic Landmark.

But of all the stores, there is only one clock, he says.

“It is an honor to be the curators of a cherished Kaufmann's tradition to meet under its majestic clock,” Schutte says. “It has been a meeting place for me, personally, and will in the future, be for many more generations.”

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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