Music store proprietors
Jacob and Rudolph Volkwein were 15 and 13 years old when they immigrated to America from Breitbach, Germany in 1895. They settled in Allegheny City with their uncle and both boys found employment in the Taylor and Dean Ornamental Iron Works. Isolated by their inability to speak English and lacking friends their age, Jacob sought solace in playing a concert zither he had brought with him from home. Needing a case for his zither, he walked into F. Bechtel Music Store on Smithfield Street. He must have made a favorable impression for, before he left, the proprietors offered him a job. Their offer of $6 a week could not match the $8 a week he made at the iron works but Mr. and Mrs. Bechtel took Jacob’s suggestion and hired his kid brother, Rudy, to be a combination clerk, janitor and messenger boy. When the Bechtels retired in 1905, Rudolph bought the business, brought his brother on as a partner and changed the shop’s name to Volkwein’s Music.
When the brothers entered the music business, America was a nation of amateur musicians. A 1956 Pittsburgh Press article about Jacob’s retirement described the era as, “the days of striped blazers and high-button shoes [when] the city’s young blades harmonized in the barbershop while waiting to be shaved.” In the same article, Jacob agreed with this assessment, adding that they used to sell ukuleles, “by the wagonload.” Volkwein’s became known for having anything a musician could need, including lessons and instrument repair services. They specialized in providing instruments and music for schools and music teachers. When the construction of Mellon Bank forced them to move their shop from Smithfield Street to Liberty Avenue in 1921, the brothers used their predicament as an opportunity. Rather than move their considerable stock of pianos, Jacob negotiated with all seven piano dealers in town. Volkweins’ offered to get out of the piano selling business if the piano dealers would agree to stop selling sheet music. The deal meant the brothers were saved the expense of moving the pianos and, more importantly, it set them up as the only sheet music dealers of note in Pittsburgh. Volkwein’s familiarity with sheet music led them to set up a formidable filing system that allowed them to stock and navigate within over a million different pieces of music. They expanded on this part of their business by setting up a publishing department to serve those customers who wished to print and distribute compositions and arrangements. This part of the business was sold to Columbia Pictures in 1982.
Rudolph Volkwein died at his Perrysville Avenue home on January 21, 1954 after a six month illness. At the time of his death, he had been in the music store business for 58 years. Less, than a week later, Jacob’s wife, Mary, died of a heart attack at their home in the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. Jacob retired as president of Volkwein’s Music two years later in 1956. Rudolph’s sons, Carl and Walter had been working in the family business since the 1930s and, upon their uncle’s retirement, took over the business. Jacob Volkwein died on December 26, 1984.
In 1965, Volkwein Music moved from their Downtown location on Liberty Avenue to the Volkwein Building on Sandusky Avenue on Pittsburgh’s North Side. The business had expanded to include wholesale instrument sales, which may be why Volkweins’ chose the seven story building. Less than twenty years later, that same seven story building was too big for a company that was conducting more and more of its sales by mail and over the phone. In 1989,The Dia Art Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation partnered with The Carnegie Museum of Art to establish The Andy Warhol Museum, which they announced would be housed in the Volkwein Building . The Carnegie Institute purchased the building in 1990 for $950,000, at which time Volkwein’s Music moved to its current location at RIDC Park West in Pittsburgh.