Charles and Sara Sanders Falk immigrated to old Allegheny City from Erpol, Germany, near Frankfurt, in the 1850s. Charles Falk and Samuel Strassburger started Strassburger & Falk, a clothing store on Federal Street, but Falk soon left the business. About 1868, the Falks moved to Irwin Station, now Greensburg, Pa. Charles and Sara Falk had seven children, Tillie, Maurice, Leon, Sigmund, Carrie, Jessie and Amy. As young men, the three sons returned to Pittsburgh to pursue opportunities in business. The rest of the family later followed them back to the city.
Early in his professional life, Maurice Falk (1866-1946) worked in retail with Jacob Klee. In 1893, he and partner Henry Weiskopf established the Duquesne Reduction Company, a smelting and refining business, and other industrial concerns. In the 1920s, the Falk Brothers merged several companies into the Federated Metals Corporation. Working with Isaac Frank and others, the brothers founded the Weirton Steel Company, which became the National Steel Corporation. Maurice Falk was also a shareholder in other companies, including the Blaw-Knox Company.
The brothers maintained interests in other industries, too. In 1919, they established the Falk American Potato Flour Corporation, which claimed to have built the first potato-flour mill in the United States. The business emerged from federal government research into food dehydration during World War I, research that sought ways to maximize the national food supply by preventing waste of surplus crops. With the slogan “The Baking Aid that Nature Made,” the company promoted potato flour as a “bread improver” and hired a sales force of bakers to travel the country offering demonstrations to bakeries. By 1921, the Falk American Potato Flour Company oversaw a six-state business from offices in Pittsburgh. They owned five of the nine potato-flour mills in operation in the United States and had invested more than $1 million in the industry. I.A. Simon was the secretary and general manager of the company. The company briefly employed Louis Reizenstein and David Glick in the years following World War I.
In 1888, Maurice Falk married Laura Klinordlinger of Pittsburgh. Their only child, a son, died in infancy, and they became closely involved with their niece and nephew, the children of his brother Leon Falk. After Laura Falk died in 1928, Maurice Falk married Selma Wertheimer.
Leon Falk (1869-1928) married Fanny Edel (1879-1910), the daughter of Freda and Jacob Edel in Lynchburg, Va. After attending the Richmond Women’s College and the Madame Isaac’s School in Auteuil, France, Fanny Edel spent a year in Paris and two years in San Francisco.
Fanny and Leon Falk met at a wedding in January 1900. He was best man and she was maid of honor. They married that November and had two children, Leon Jr. and Marjorie.
The brothers Maurice and Leon Falk were important philanthropists in both in the Jewish community and the city at large. In 1912, they helped established the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
The brothers and their wives were particularly interested in health care and education. In 1927, Maurice and Leon Falk donated approximately $500,000 to build the Falk Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh. The university had been trying to establish a dispensary and out-patient clinic for many years and recent fundraising efforts had stalled. When construction costs far overran estimates, Leon Falk Jr. and his stepmother, Ruth Falk, made up the difference.
Fanny and Leon Falk were proponents of progressive education methods such as smaller class sizes and individualized lesson plans and were supporters of Community School, an early proponent of these teaching methods in Pittsburgh. In 1931, their children Leon Jr. and Marjorie established the Fanny Edel Falk Elementary School through a charter between the Community School and the University of Pittsburgh. The “laboratory” school, which still exists in its original building on Aliquippa Street in Oakland, promoted progressive teaching methods while also providing student teachers with opportunities to gain first-hand experience in the field.
After Fanny Falk died, Leon Falk Sr. married Ruth Levy, daughter of Rabbi J. Leonard and Henrietta Platnauer Levy of Rodef Shalom Congregation, where the Falks were members. Leon Falk Sr. dedicated a recreation and teaching wing at the synagogue in memory of his first wife.
Leon Falk Jr., (1901-1988) graduated from Yale University before joining National Steel. For many years, his private secretary was I. A. Simon. In addition to his business pursuits, he, like his father and uncle, was a philanthropist. With his uncle, Maurice Falk, and community leaders including Eugene Strassburger, he was one of the seven original managers of the Maurice and Laura Falk Foundation, a $10 million trust fund established in 1929 “for human welfare.” The foundation began by funding economic research programs, including early contributions to the Brookings Institute and new institutions in Israel during the years following statehood. It later expanded into funding political science and education programs. Although the Falk Foundation, as it later became known, was only intended to last for 35 years, it remained active until 2014. Among its concluding grants, the Falk Foundation gave funds to the Senator John Heinz History Center and funds for Chatham University to create the Falk Sustainability Endowment.
In 1926, Leon Falk Jr. married Katharine Sonneborn Falk, a historian and community leader. They were leaders in the Dominican Republic Settlement Association, or DORSA, an American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee project during the early years of World War II to resettle Jewish refugees from Europe in Sosua Bay, in the Dominican Republic. Leon Jr. was president of the association in 1941, and both he and his wife visited the settlement frequently.
Leon Jr. and Katharine Falk divorced in 1947. She moved to Israel in 1963. “When you’ve had wealth and luxury, it’s easy to give them up,” she told the Pittsburgh Press in 1974, when asked why she left a life of relative ease in Pittsburgh for a cold 200-year-old house in Jerusalem.
Leon Falk Jr. later married Loti Grunberg. Loti Grunberg Falk was born in Turkey and raised in Italy. She met Leon Falk Jr. in New York City. The couple moved to Pittsburgh in 1963. Through her fundraising efforts, Loti Falk helped the Pittsburgh Playhouse avoid financial collapse in 1966. The Playhouse, which was started by Richard S. and Helen Wayne Rauh, merged with Point Park College in 1969. Loti Falk helped found the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater in 1969.