Century III shoppers share fond remembrances of mall
The year was 1979. The Steelers and Pirates were Super Bowl and World Series champs, respectively, Blondie had a “Heart of Glass” and a fish saved Pittsburgh. That same year, a new mall – Century III – opened in West Mifflin.
On January 6 of this year, an announcement was made that the Macy’s department store location at Century III Mall would be closing. Other Macy’s locations will also close, while others will remain open with fewer personnel. While area consumers will miss Macy’s, the news of the store’s impending demise stirred memories for many of the building’s previous occupant, Kaufmann’s, and of the Mall itself. Kaufmann’s occupied the space from 1979 until roughly eleven years ago and was a longstanding Pittsburgh shopping tradition.
Speaking of Pittsburgh shopping traditions, let’s take a look at the origins of Century III Mall, as well as at how Kaufmann’s was an integral part of that history. The Mall’s development was a result of the collaboration between one of the nation’s leading shopping mall developers, Edward J. DeBartolo, and the U.S. Steel Corporation.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, the two joined forces to construct a new mall on the site previously known as Brown’s Dump, an artificial mountain formed by years of slag piling. The new mall was to be named Century III Mall because the original concept was conceived during the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. Century III Mall opened in two phases: Phase I in October 1979 and Phase II in 1980. During Phase I, half of the structure remained under construction.
Kauffman’s opened during Phase I and was the ninth suburban department store to open in the Pittsburgh area, with two levels and 15,000 square foot of shopping space. The opening was unique because it marked the first time Kauffman’s had a grand opening at the same time the mall itself initially welcomed guests. While South Hill Village and the Monroeville Mall predated Century III, neither mall had a Kaufmann’s until 1987.
An October 1979 Pittsburgh Press article described Kaufmann’s as a “visual showcase of merchandise presentation, architectural and interior design.” According to the article, a restaurant – The Patio – was located on the second level of the store.
“Kaufmann’s was a Pittsburgh icon, and the Century III store was also an icon for the early days of the mall. With the smoked glass on the exterior of the store, [the store] was completely unique from the rest of the mall,” said Eric Salmons of C3Nostalgia, an organization that documents the Century III’s history. “When the mall was under DeBartolo, the Kaufmann’s store saw countless events at the center court amphitheater, which had a stage and sunken seating directly in front of the store in the mall. If you had taken any photographs at these events, it would be hard to not have Kaufmann’s in the background.”
Kauffman’s would remain in that location until 2005, when all Kaufmann’s stores were rebranded as Macy’s.
“It seems that everyone has their go to entrance at Century III, and our family’s was always Kaufmann’s,” said Marielle Thomas, a longtime Century III patron. “The glass exterior, large Kaufmann’s sign, and the mirrored escalators always stood out to me.”
Another innovative feature of Century III was the food court. Originally known as The Courtyard, it was the first mall based food court in the Pittsburgh area, and there were two sections, smoking and non-smoking.
For shoppers who preferred a more formal dining experience, Century III has been home to several restaurants over the years, including Elby’s, Wolfie’s, the York Steak House, The Ground Round, Ruby Tuesday and Old Mexico.
During the original opening of Phase II, the first store to occupy the finished space was a shoe store, The Wild Pair. The location is now home to Cash in Culture, a successful store specializing in video games, movies, music, toys and more. Located on the second floor outside Dick’s Sporting Goods, they’ve been a Century III staple since 2005 and continue to thrive.
“Our sales and customer base are as strong or stronger than it’s ever been,” Tim Hartman, president of Cash In Culture, said. “The mall captured a time in life that people are not just ready to let go of yet. The mall [has brought in and worked] with local business as spaces have opened up. Most coverage does not report that, and that’s a shame. [One] great addition is the boxing ring/training facility that takes up an enormous amount of square footage and creates general traffic for the center.”
The boxing ring training facility Hartman mentions is The Fight Company, a fitness gym founded and operated by professional boxers. Just opened last year and located on the mall’s second level outside of JC Penney, it’s a 6,000 square feet state of the art fitness facility that offers classes with certified trainers.
In the near future, Century III Mall will be home to several exciting events, including 3 Rivers Comicon (May 21-22). This inaugural event is sponsored by longtime mall tenant New Dimension Comics and will feature various comic book, toy and collectibles vendors, appearances by comic book artists and other special guests.
A regular, monthly event held at the mall is Code Red Wrestling, featuring live wrestling action.
While the departure of mainstays like Macy’s makes the mall’s future appear bleak, Moonbeam Capital Investments, who’ve owned Century III since 2013, say they’re in for the long haul. In a January 11 interview with KDKA’s Joe Delano, Moonbeam’s Senior Vice President Shawl Pryor said they’re now rethinking their earlier vision for the mall. Pryor said possible future plans include transforming the space into a combination of retail, office, entertainment and potentially hotel space.
“We think this could be a huge project for West Mifflin, and we haven’t given up on Century III,” Pryor said.
Regardless of the final outcome, Century III Mall has always been a unique place that holds special memories for shoppers, including Marielle Thomas.
“For me, the very distinct Century III feeling happened while walking through the perfume department in Kaufmann’s,” and the smell of perfume as it fades into the smell of chlorine from the fountain in the center of the mall,” Thomas said. “Strange as it sounds, the combination of the two smells will always capture the place that Century III holds in my heart, and all the family memories that were shared there.”
Story by Chuck Brutz for Pennsylvania Bridges