Downtown McKeesport once boasted several large department stores, including this former Montgomery Ward store at 539 Fifth Avenue. Notice the wonderful art deco detail on the facade. In 1937, the store was the site of a sit-down strike, in which store employees demanded higher pay and shorter work periods. Built circa 1930, it was one of several Montgomery Ward stores in the greater Pittsburgh area. Other stores were located in downtown New Kensington, Donora, and Beaver Falls. As retail trends changed over the decades, Montgomery Ward eventually vacated their downtown department stores and opened up in suburban shopping centers. Some suburban store locations included Lower Burrell and Century III Mall in West Mifflin.
Montgomery Ward also operated a divisional center at 598 Third Street in downtown Pittsburgh, as of 1930. This location managed the various stores throughout the district. Once among the largest retailers in the United States, Montgomery Ward was founded in 1872 and was famous for its mail order catalogs. The company went out of business in December, 2000. It was, at the time, the largest retail bankruptcy liquidation in American history.
During its heyday, McKeesport was the center of industry and commerce in the Mon Valley region, the second largest city in Allegheny County, and behind only Pittsburgh, Erie, Altoona, and Johnstown in population among western Pennsylvania cities. Some of the other major department stores in downtown McKeesport included Cox's, Immel's, and The Famous. McKeesport was also the location of the first G.C. Murphy store. Murphy lived in a mansion on Madison Avenue in McKeesport, near Millionaire's Row. The G.C. Murphy store still stands, but the mansion does not.
The Montgomery Ward store in downtown McKeesport is for sale. One would hope that it finds a buyer who will be a careful steward of the building's interesting and colorful history, from the era when downtown retail was at its peak.