February 1958: The North Side’s legendary Boggs & Buhl
For 89 years, Boggs & Buhl department store stood as a beacon of cozy commerce on the North Side.
The founders, Russell H. Boggs and Henry Buhl Jr., left their home town of Zelienople and, in 1869, opened a one-room store at 512 Federal Street.
The partners prospered and later the store’s address was 115, 117, 119 and 121 Federal Street. Boggs & Buhl boasted 89 departments and offered cloaks and suits, fancy goods and art, jewelry and novelties, muslin, underwear, corsets, dresses, hosiery, gloves, seal plush wraps, heavy curtains and draperies.
The goods were first rate and so was the clientele. Customers included wealthy residents of Ridge Avenue with names such as Jones, Byers, Heinz, Arbuckle and Mesta. Nettie Gordon, a notorious North Side madam, outfitted her girls at the store and could always get credit.
The store felt so much like home to customers and employees that when it celebrated its 55th birthday in 1924, famous people wrote congratulatory letters. Among the well-wishers were steelmaker Charles Schwab, food merchant Howard Heinz and composer Victor Herbert.
Another big fan was best-selling mystery author Mary Roberts Rinehart, who grew up on the North Side and later led her three sons and a collie on visits to the store. She wrote an enthusiastic letter recalling that her very own baby clothes, high school graduation outfit, furniture and housewares came from Boggs & Buhl.
“At Boggs & Buhl I saw my first book on display, bought there my very first magazine story in print,” Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote in her letter.
The store continued operating even after the death of its owners.
In the 1940s and 1950s, some North Side residents moved to homes in Ross, Shaler, McCandless or Hampton and took their business to suburban shopping centers in those new communities.
By 1955, the store struggled to retain business while the neighborhood around it deteriorated, becoming a place of dimly lit saloons, penny arcades and “girlie parlors.”
Boggs & Buhl closed its doors in February 1958, a blow to its more than 400 employees, 15 percent of whom had worked there for more than 30 years. Among the store’s alumni was Peggy Sebak, mother of Rick Sebak, who for years has been documenting Pittsburgh’s in a series of films for WQED.
In May 1960, the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority leveled the building and created a parking lot for 185 cars. Later, Allegheny Center, the city’s $60 million answer to suburbia, rose on several parcels of land once occupied by Boggs & Buhl.
— Marylynne Pitz
Top picture: In February 1958, people wait to enter Boggs & Buhl department store to shop at its closing sale on the North Side. (Pittsburgh Press photo)