Pittsburgh History

 

Boggs & Buhl Department Store,

once a North Side institution

 

By Paul S. Korol

For Pittsburgh Senior News – December, 2004

 

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In 1869, two young men, Russell H. Boggs and Henry Buhl, Jr., left their hometown of Zelienople to start a small store at 512 Federal Street in Allegheny, Penn. (now North Side). Henry, a 21 year old of German descent, and his 24-year-old partner, a Scotch-Irishman, were energetic shopkeepers. Henry’s father had helped raise the $3,500 that started the young entrepreneurs in their 18-foot-wide store. Together, they uncrated boxes, dressed the counters with calico, gingham and other yard goods, and worked a seven-day week to make the business a success.

 

It may have been Henry’s grandfather, Christian Buhl, a furrier, who encouraged his grandson to become involved in merchandising. Legend has it that Christian took Henry into a market blindfolded, and had him identify by touch every piece of fur handed to him. If he had the genes and the background, he would be a success in the clothing and dry goods trade in 19th-century America.

 

As their business prospered, they moved across the street into what later became part of their main building complex. Boggs & Buhl had captured the “carriage trade” in Allegheny City and their reputation for quality goods and service became known throughout the Pittsburgh region. Customers got swift and courteous treatment as Henry, Jr. snapped his fingers to alert the sales staff, and escorted satisfied customers to the Federal Street entrance to thank them for their patronage. Afterwards, he would question the salesperson about the individual’s particular buying habits.

 

Russell Boggs, the senior partner, was the idea man -- sometimes coming up with promotions and displays to which the more conservative Henry would cautiously agree. But the two men complemented each perfectly. Packages were wrapped to perfection, and teams of matched horses pulled the delivery wagons that brought purchases to your door. The National Retail Drygoods Association ranked Boggs & Buhl with the best of the country’s retailers.

 

In 1912, after 43 years in business, the two partners decided to retire, and sold the store to the May Company of Cleveland. Customer service, merchandise quality and profitability immediately began to decline. Neither retired partner could tolerate the loss of reputation in the store that bore their names. In a decisive move, they bought it back in 1915. The partners were once again in business.

 

In 1921 Boggs & Buhl became the focal point of a two-week manhunt headlined by newspapers across the country. The theft of $45,000 in cash and the shooting death of the assistant building superintendent outraged the community. Within two weeks, three individuals including a husband-wife team were convicted of the theft and slaying. A fourth suspect who had masterminded the robbery eluded police for 13 years until his capture in 1934. All four received long prison sentences.

 

Boggs continued as senior partner until his death in 1922, the same year in which Henry’s wife, Louise, died. In his 70s without heirs, Henry continued to operate the store and planned for the distribution of his estate. His will included $100,000 for the Boggs & Buhl Welfare Association that benefited retired employees. Henry died in 1927.


The store expanded over the years to include 244,000 square feet of floor space. The emporium would eventually employ 1,200 people. After Henry’s death, the business was controlled by a trusteeship, The Buhl Foundation.

 

Near the end of 1947, operation and remodeling costs led the owners to vote to liquidate. The store had lost $1,323,959.00 from 1931 through 1947. Shortly after the vote, six Pittsburgh businessmen and two out-of-town investors purchased the controlling stock, which had been held by the foundation. Minority stock interests were acquired later. A decision was made to lease portions of the store to other business. A Thorofare supermarket occupied part of the first floor, while the second floor was partially divided for an S & H Green Stamp redemption center

 

By 1955, the death knell was being sounded for the store, which had been waging an unsuccessful battle to retain its business and reputation. The opening of North Hills Village Shopping Center was a crucial blow. Surveys had shown that up to 60 percent of those shoppers had been Boggs & Buhl customers before becoming suburban shopping center patrons. Federal Street, once the heartbeat of the North Side, was giving way to businesses of lesser caliber. The store survived until 1958 before closing with the loss of 400 jobs. On May 8, 1960, demolition crews began dismantling the store. Newspapers reported that there were many tear-filled eyes when the wrecking ball struck.

 

** I wish all of you Pittsburgh Senior News readers a wonderful holiday season with happiness and prosperity throughout the coming year. **


Death Notice: Paul S. Korol
At Allegheny General Hospital, 2010 January 16

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________________________________________________________________________

 

Addendum – By Glenn A. Walsh

 

The preceding was a very informative history of the Boggs and Buhl Department Store written by Paul S. Korol for the 2004 December issue of the Pittsburgh Senior News. The following is a small addendum regarding the closing of the Boggs and Buhl Department Store.

 

Herman Mike was employed in the maintenance/custodial department of Boggs and Buhl Department Store for many years until it closed in 1958. At that time, he took a similar position at The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science [located one block north of the Boggs and Buhl Department Store], which lasted until his retirement shortly before the closing of the original Buhl Planetarium, as a public museum, in 1991.

 

Mr. Mike was well known for providing a beautiful polish to the many bronze and brass surfaces in the Buhl Planetarium building, such as the brass railing of the Foucault Pendulum Pit.

 

Mr. Mike once told Mr. Walsh that one of the reasons the Boggs and Buhl Department Store closed was because the owner, in the late 1950s, was not willing to spend the money to modernize the building. In particular, he was not willing to air-condition the entire building.

 

Ironically, The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science had been air-conditioned from its opening in 1939. In fact, the Buhl Planetarium building was the first publicly-owned building in the City [and, possibly, the State] to be constructed with air-conditioning!

 

So, it seems, the failure to air-condition, and make other building modernizations to, the Boggs and Buhl Department Store resulted in the closing of this landmark institution.

 

gaw  2005 Jan. 11

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Addendum 2 – By Glenn A. Walsh


Reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1958 February 12 was the date it was announced that Boggs and Buhl Department Store, one of Pittsburgh's oldest department stores, would go out of business after 89 years.

Also, "Boggs and Buhl" is memoralized on the Great Pittsburgh Friendship Quilt, created at Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science in 1988. The "Boggs and Buhl" quilt strip is located just to the left of the Buhl Planetarium Observatory strip of quilt squares.

gaw 2009 Feb. 17

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Addendum 3 - By Glenn A. Walsh

1) In 1885 - "Boggs and Buhl install a new device -- the telephone."
Citation: Kauffman, Bruce. "Hiram Ulysses Grant gets a new name." Column: p.m. History 1885.
Pittsburgh Trib p.m. 2009 July 27: 24.

2) Boggs and Buhl Department Store closed to the public, permanently, on 1958 March 22.
Part of recollection of former employee, Peg Sebak, related during television documentary produced by her son, Rick Sebak.
Citation: Sebak, Peg. Interview. By Rick Sebak. North Side Story. Television Documentary. Pittsburgh: WQED-TV 13, 1997.

gaw 2009 Aug. 10

Allegheny Public Square Plaza/Park, North Side, Pittsburgh (formerly Ober Park)

Vancheri, Barbara. "Obituary: Peggy Kent Sebak / Woman of many talents, mother of documentary maker." Obituary.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2011 April 28.
The Buhl Foundation paid $180 for two semesters at Carnegie Institute of Technology...
Today, one of her four children is WQED's Rick Sebak, whose popular documentaries are funded by that same Buhl Foundation...
She worked in personnel for the U.S. Steel National Tube Works in the Frick Building and remembered when Helen Clay Frick would come in and inspect the premises, so to speak...
It had been an after-school job at Boggs & Buhl department store that earned her a spot in Mr. Sebak's "North Side Story." She took three streetcars to get to her post at a glass counter near drawers of handkerchiefs.
She was past president of St. Valentine Christian Mothers in Bethel Park and a founding member of Stage 62 (which now performs in the Music Hall of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library in Carnegie, Pennsylvania).

Spatter, Sam. "Former Allegheny Center Mall successful with offices."
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review 2010 Dec. 28.

O'Neill, Brian. "Around Town: Days of shoe repair coming to a close for North Side cobbler." Column.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2010 March 30.
"Young Frank started in shoe repair at Boggs & Buhl, the old North Side department store on Federal Street, for 75 cents an hour in the spring of 1952...
"In 1985, the year before Gimbels closed, Mr. Serrao bought this shop, where he'd been working as a an employee a couple of days a week since the (Allegheny Center) mall opened in 1972."

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News Stories Regarding Merger of Federated and May Company
Department Store Chains, Including Probable Loss of Last
Pittsburgh Regional Department Store Name: Kaufmann's
2005 March