Kaufmann's Second Chance: a Pittsburgh Icon Goes High Tech

The former Downtown department store gets a high-tech makeover as it transforms into 311 luxury apartments as well as a hotel and retail space.




Photos by John Altdorfer

 

A beloved piece of Pittsburgh history is now at the forefront of high-tech, high-style living.

The iconic Kaufmann’s department store Downtown has been transformed into 311 new luxury apartments equipped with voice-command technology that developers say is the first of its kind in the city. Through a partnership with Amazon, residents of Kaufmann’s Grand on Fifth Avenue can use the Alexa cloud-based voice service to control each unit’s surround sound, room temperature, lighting, televisions, window shades and more. 
 


 

“When we come into a market, we have to find what doesn’t exist,” says Michael Samschick, president of Core Realty, the Philadelphia-based company that owns the building. “We went to every apartment building and said, ‘What does not exist in Pittsburgh? What can we bring here that’s different?’ That’s when we came into the automation piece of it.”
 

 
Units are equipped with voice-command technology that can be used to control lighting, temperature and surround sound.
 

Core Realty purchased the building in 2015, after the former occupant, Macy’s, announced plans to close its Downtown location. Macy’s had been in the space for nine years, but most Pittsburghers associate the building with its occupant of more than a century, Kaufmann’s. The department store’s historic flagship location, known as The Big Store, opened in 1886 and underwent several extensive renovations during its long run before Macy’s took over the space in 2006. The cherished clock at Fifth and Smithfield remains, as both the store and the clock hold historic landmark designation from the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.
 


The open kitchen plans feature stainless steel appliances, cherry cabinetry and granite countertops.
 

In addition to the apartments, the 1.2-million-square-foot building also will be home to retail and office space and a 160-room EVEN Hotel set to open in the spring. Samschick says Core was drawn to the building’s bones, then, “almost immediately thereafter, it became, ‘What does that building represent? What’s the impact it had on Pittsburgh? How can we take that history and take it to another level?’”

All of the apartments, ranging from 427-square-foot studios to 1,059-square-foot two-bedrooms, allow residents to live a practically hands-free lifestyle. Everything from the lighting to the privacy shades to the coffee maker is voice-controlled. Residents can even make reservations for the rooftop tennis courts or order a meal from the hotel’s room service simply by speaking the request.

For those who prefer to be more hands-on, each unit comes with an iPad connected to the smart system. Residents also can control everything remotely via smartphones.
 


A workspace located adjacent to the kitchen is  enhanced by natural sunlight, plus views of Downtown.
 

“It’s as tech as you’re ever going to get in any type of living environment. It’s truly a different living experience,” says Samschick. “When Kaufmann’s was here, it was the largest retail building in Pittsburgh. It was the first with escalators and elevators. Now it’s the first to be fully automated. It went from ‘The Flintstones’ to ‘The Jetsons.’”

The space-age aspect isn’t the only thing drawing residents to Kaufmann’s Grand, where other amenities abound. In addition to the tennis courts, the building features a state-of-the-art gym and spa, an outdoor park in the center of the building, and a rooftop with a restaurant and bar deck overlooking an infinity pool. Rent prices range from $1,378 a month for a studio to $2,371 for a two-bedroom apartment, according to the Kaufmann’s Grand website.

“We look at this as a city under one roof,” Samschick says. “You can have everything you need here, from walking your dog to parking inside. You never need to leave.”
 The apartments make use of open-concept floor plans and floor-to-ceiling windows to create inventive yet serene living spaces. Glass walls separating the master bedroom and bathroom create the illusion of added space and feature voice-controlled privacy shades. A glass transom on the wall between the bedroom and kitchen lets in natural light.

“We like that natural light coming in to make it feel roomier, open and more expansive,” says Samschick.
 


 

A neutral palette of greys and whites coupled with hardwood floors and crown and base molding creates a clean, comfortable feel. An open kitchen features stainless steel appliances, cherry cabinetry and granite countertops. The peninsula bar offers seating, and a versatile space just beyond it can be used as an additional dining area, a workspace or simply as a spot to sit and take in the views. Residents of interior-facing units can look up to see the tops of the nearby city skyline or down to a glass atrium below. Exterior-facing apartments offer views of Downtown. If they need more than a view for entertainment, residents can use one of the two smart TVs that come with each unit — one in the living space and a second in the bathroom.
 


 

The neutral palette carries into the bathroom, though here it results in a more dramatic effect. Turkish marble tile striped in gray and white in a stretcher bond pattern covers the floor and shower and climbs up a quarter of the wall. A back-lit mirror above a sleek white vanity adds to the contemporary vibe.

Cutting-edge design choices do more than create a specific aesthetic — they are a reminder to residents that they are living in a space unlike any other.

“Everything you come into (in the building) will be tomorrow’s world in today’s space from yesterday’s opportunities,” says Samschick.  
 

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