Amazon Alexa Meets Frank Lloyd Wright: Transforming Kaufmann’s into A Downtown Icon Once Again

Many Pittsburgh natives remember a time when holiday shopping and downtown excursions were prompted by five simple words: “Meet me under Kaufmann’s clock.” Though it’s been years since we last used those words, they may soon resurface again, thanks to a recent collaboration between Philadelphia-based Core Realty and Pittsburgh’s Desmone Architects: the creation of Kaufmann’s Grand on Fifth Avenue.

From 1887 to 2006, the intersection of Smithfield and Fifth Avenue was a holiday rendezvous point as much for its iconic brass clock as for the enormous shopping center attached to it: Kaufmann’s department store. For more than one hundred years, Kauffman’s housed restaurants, hair salons, and anything else a shopper could desire, including the famous Santa’s Shop. The building was the beginning and end of many a day’s interactions, bringing the community and the wider public together like nothing else in Pittsburgh could. People traveled from miles away through December’s falling snow to enjoy an unmatched holiday shopping experience, and even just to catch a glimpse of the store’s magnificent, ever-changing window displays.

But the building’s heyday only exists in memory, at least at the moment. After a short-lived purchase by Macy’s, the building has sat vacant since 2015, with many in the public aching to see it revived. Naturally, Desmone Architects was thrilled when it was approached by Core to bring Core’s vision for Kaufmann’s Grand on Fifth Avenue to life. Desmone and Core have worked to preserve this integral part of Pittsburgh’s past while defining its path into the future as a cultural and technological leader.

A Building of Historic Surprises

Because the building was constructed in 1887, much of its structure is unlike anything we see today. Since day one of demolition and remodeling, workers have uncovered a number of surprising artifacts from the building’s storied interior. The building has presented itself as a puzzle in many ways, prompting Core to leverage a number of these unearthed discoveries as opportunities to fuse its ultra-modern vision with rare, one-of-a-kind remnants of the old.

For example, workers uncovered a complicated network of unique steel columns, arranged like ladders, holding up parts of the structure. Much different from today’s steel, these members were analyzed and found to have a different composition than modern steel. True to their roots, they were confirmed to have been forged in Pittsburgh.

In the old arcade sit four elevators with heavy brass doors—commissioned by Kaufmann’s and designed by renowned architect and friend of the Kaufmann family, Frank Lloyd Wright. These ornate doors will grace the interior of Kaufmann’s Grand. A water fountain designed by Wright was also uncovered, and will potentially be incorporated into the building’s final design.

The iconic Frank Lloyd Wright elevator doors in Pittsburgh's downtown Kaufmann's Grand on Fifth building.

Iconic Frank Lloyd Wright Elevator Doors

Of course, the iconic brass clock will remain over the corner of Smithfield and Fifth Avenue, as it is as much a part of Pittsburgh’s fiber as it is attached to the building itself. In fact, when Desmone Architects contacted the Pittsburgh zoning office about revitalizing the Kaufmann’s building, the first question the office asked was: “Are you going to keep the clock?”

The construction team has continued to uncover unexpected roadblocks—an issue common in such old buildings, but especially true in structures like Kaufmann’s, which is actually a combination of four different buildings joined together inside and out. Desmone Architects has been nearby in each of these instances, excited to analyze the situation and recommend solutions to meet the goals of Core’s vision.

A Transformation Behind The Walls

Core Realty’s focus on “the hook and the look” was the refrain woven into Desmone’s design process, and our architects worked diligently to plan show-stopping features that would once again thrust Kaufmann’s Grand on Fifth Avenue among Pittsburgh’s favorite buildings.

It won’t be long until Kaufmann’s Grand reclaims that title. You wouldn’t know it by looking at the old building from Smithfield Street today, but something monumental is happening behind the structure’s delicately-designed facade. The building’s 13 stories are undergoing a transformation into something never before seen anywhere in Pittsburgh, making it one of the most impressive downtown revitalizations.

The floors formerly dominated by sales rooms for bedding and clothes have been exchanged for high-tech apartments that will be entirely voice-activated by Amazon Alexa. With expansive glass walls to allow for generous amounts of natural lighting, the apartments will feature coffee pots, stoves, and blinds activated by simple voice commands, a unique feature that will reinforce the city’s forward-thinking progress. With thousands of apartment units built in the last five years, Desmone believes Core’s prototype will be the most sought-after by both the Millennial and empty-nester demographics.

Amenities are found throughout the building. Working with Core’s vision, Desmone has worked through iterations of grocery stores, vending machines for simple grocery items, a movie theater, and a fitness center. The goal? The old Kaufmann building will one day be equipped well enough that if residents are short an ingredient while cooking dinner, all they need to do is run downstairs.

Rendering image of the infinity rooftop pool with the best views of the city

Rendering image of the infinity rooftop pool with the best views of the city.

To cap it off, an infinity pool will sit on the roof above the Smithfield and Fourth Avenue intersection to give patrons the best view of downtown and the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers. At night, the rooftop attractions promise a breathtaking view and atmosphere you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else living in the heart of the city.

Aerial rendering of Kaufmann’s Grand on Fifth Avenue capturing the entire building.

Aerial rendering of Kaufmann’s Grand on Fifth Avenue capturing the entire building.

The middle of the building will provide parking for future residents, and a hotel will afford people from near and far a chance to relive childhood memories with an overnight stay in the famous Pittsburgh building. On the ground floor, space is intended for retail shops and restaurants that will draw in pedestrians and residents living in the floors above. Once again, the Kaufmann’s building will establish itself as a one-stop location for busy families and professionals on the move.

Street view rendering from Forbes and Smithfield.

Street view rendering from Forbes and Smithfield, the famous clock can be seen in the left background.

Continuing the focus on community, the core of the building will be removed for an enormous atrium that will allow even more natural light into the apartments and retail spaces destined for the ground floor. At the bottom of the atrium will sit a lush park area for residents and guests,  banked on each side by glass walls. Whether inside or out, guests will be able to engage with neighbors. Kaufmann’s was once synonymous with community, and Core’s vision promises to position it again as a Pittsburgh focal point—a central hub for community, convenience, and modern living.

Launching The Future by Mimicking The Past

With leases now being accepted for the Kaufmann’s Grand on Fifth Avenue, the old building will soon once again regain its title as Pittsburgh’s favorite meeting location. Thanks to the increased foot traffic from the futuristic living spaces and decadent restaurants planned, perhaps we’ll all hear (or in a more modern vein, text) those five simple words once again: “Meet me under Kaufmann’s clock.”

For more information about Kaufmann’s Grand on Fifth Avenue, including apartment floor plans, visit its website or email

Curious about how Desmone Architects can balance your business objectives and desires to deliver your ultimate vision? Contact us to discuss your goals, or look through a few of our past projects to see our capabilities. Stay tuned for our future blog posts to see how we’re changing the Pittsburgh skyline every day.