There is something charming about our Christmases gone by. Mt. Lebanon families could take the trolley downtown, peruse the magnificent window displays and marvel at the breathtaking lights and decorations lining the busy city streets. Kids would go into Kaufmann’s, later Macy’s, to perfect their Christmas lists and wait in line to meet Kris Kringle. Couples would meet under the famous Kaufmann’s clock before heading over Isaly’s for a cup of hot chocolate and a romantic stroll through the holiday hustle and bustle.
Luckily, these traditions are not dead—Pittsburgh’s golden days of yore are perfectly preserved and freshly re-imagined in Heinz History Center’s new holiday exhibit, “A Very Merry Pittsburgh.” The exhibit opens Saturday, November 18, featuring items from the History Center’s Macy’s/Kaufmann’s collection, Christmas decorations, historic toys spanning the 1940s to the 2000s and more.
“If you love Pittsburgh and you love Christmas, you will love this exhibit,” said Andrew Masich, President and CEO of Heinz History Center, at a press preview, “It rekindles the spirit of Christmas Past … it’s perfect for parents, grandparents, kids and the kids-at-heart.”
The 5,000-square-foot exhibit is on the first floor, and the entrance is flanked by life-sized nutcrackers and an enormous painting of a Christmas scene outside Kaufmann’s, created by Bethel Park artist Linda Barnicott. Barnicott painted the scene in 2002 on a scorching day in July, but her supportive family and friends donned their thickest winter attire to model for the picture. “A convertible was driving past, and the driver turned to his friend and said, ‘That’s something you don’t see every day!'” says Barnicott. “It was such a funny experience … I feel so honored to see my work here … I didn’t realize it would be right up front! I walked up to it and was like, ‘Oh my gosh! There it is!'”
Her piece is one of many local works featured in the exhibit. Joe Crea, a Pittsburgh expat from Moon Township, spent six years creating a Christmas diorama based on his childhood memories of Pittsburgh in the 1940s and ’50s, and it is prominently featured near the entrance of the main exhibit area. “The diorama will probably be the most challenging piece for us to restore,” says curator Lauren Uhl. “It came from Denver in pieces. One of the bridges got a bit beaten up, and it looks like the Highland Park Bridge, so one might say it is authentic.”
Uhl’s favorite piece in the exhibit is a large stuffed animal mouse that was once part of a window display at Horne’s—and it has a Mt. Lebanon connection. As the story goes, Edwin Bognar came home late from a business trip one Christmas Eve in the mid-1960s without any presents, to the disappointment of his 5-year-old daughter, Cynthia. So he took her downtown and told her she could pick something special. She made it no further than the Horne’s window display, where she pointed at the mouse and said, “Minnie! I want Minnie!” Edwin then had to go into Horne’s and cut a deal with the manager, as the display mouse was not for sale. Cynthia went home that Christmas Eve with a “Minnie Mouse” that was exactly her size and has kept it all her life.
Today Cynthia and her mother, Nadine, both Mt. Lebanon residents, are COO and CEO, respectively, of The Bognar Company on Washington Road, which Cynthia’s late father, Edwin, started. They are benefactors of many charitable organizations—Nadine Bognar is a trustee of the Heinz History Center, where Cynthia’s precious mouse is on loan for the exhibition.
“It’s just such a great story for the holidays,” says Uhl. “A father’s love was so great that he just had to get his daughter what she asked for. It’s such a nice family story. That’s what Christmas is all about.”
Other interesting items include a classic Jeep overflowing with vintage toys (Did you know that the first Jeep was built here in Western PA?), the original Santaland chair and mailbox, which, fascinatingly, still contained letters to Santa when it was brought out of storage, and a film presentation with clips from Pittsburgh-related Christmas movies and a historic photo slideshow.
Kids can also play with many of the classic toys in the interactive kids’ area. But what they will really love is the chance to meet Santa Claus, who will be at the exhibit daily from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visitors should bring their smartphones or digital cameras, as no official photographer will be present. Photo-ops are free with the cost of admission.
“Pittsburgh is a big Christmas town,” says Mr. Claus, after some “Ho Ho Ho’s”, “I’ve been all over—Buffalo, Cincinnati, other downtowns—and there are no more parades, the department stores are closed. It’s disappointing … But Pittsburgh still celebrates, with events like this one and decorations and markets—even before Thanksgiving! Pittsburgh knows what Christmas is all about. It’s about new beginnings. And it’s about love, joy and peace, which you keep in your lives all year long. Not just at Christmas. And I love being here, because Pittsburgh really understands that.”