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Pizitz Building

Construction of the Pizitz Building in 1925
Construction of the Pizitz Building in 1925
(Image Courtesy of Tim Hollis from Pizitz family collection)

The First Store



Louis Pizitz opened his first store in or around 1899 at the corner of First Avenue and 23rd Street in downtown Birmingham. Just ten years prior, Pizitz had immigrated from Poland, settling into the small town of Swainsboro, Georgia. It was through the continued encouragement from his wife that he would move to Birmingham and open a store.

Soon after the opening of his first store, another would follow at the corner of Second Avenue and 19th Street on April 15th, 1899. The first newspaper ads declared it "The People Store", which would quickly change to "Your Store"; and for the next 87 years the corner store would remain under the Pizitz family ownership.

Fast forward to the 1920's and the store had become known as the "Louis Pizitz Dry Goods Company" and Louis Pizitz appointed his son, Isadore, as president of the company. The Pizitz Building seen today was designed by the architect Harry Wheelock and built in two separate phases. The first phase was completed in 1923 at a cost of $900,00 and occupied the western front of Second Avenue. The original corner store was demolished in January 1925 and work began on the second phase, lasting through the end of that year. After completion, the $1.575 million eight-story. 225,000 square foot building became Louis Pizitz's flagship store.

Surviving the Great Depression



Like many Americans during this time, Louis Pizitz felt the effects of the Great Depression. By the end of the decade, he owed over one million dollars to multiple banks. Offering to sell his building to satisfy the debts, the banks refused.

It was also during this time that Louis Pizitz made several notable and lasting contributions to the city of Birmingham. Every Thanksgiving, he would serve a meal for the needy at his store. Throughout the Depression, the state of Alabama could not afford to pay its teachers, instead providing them scrip. Against the advice of many Pizitz accepted and allowed them to purchase against the scrip. Pizitz also forged a relationship with the Birmingham and Jefferson County school system, offering to buy textbooks for students who could not afford it. He would never stop short of helping those in need.

During the mid-1930's, the state paid off the scrip and along with being able to right the store, Pizitz was able to begin the process of paying off his debts.

Pizitz Changes and Grows



Christmas arrived early in 1946 with St. Nicholas occupying the second-floor toy department starting that first Saturday of November. The local radio station, WBRC, in partnership with Pizitz would be responsible in setting and running the season Santa Clause workshop. Also during this time, Pizitz teamed with WAPI to have an electronic news ticker displaying between the second and third floor windows, although this likely only lasted a few years.

The first of many multimillion-dollar renovations began on the building in 1947. Air conditioning was installed on every floor and escalators were added, allowing shoppers to go from the ground floor to the basement and up to the fourth floor. That year the store introduced "Bunnyland", where one could find the Easter Bunny and the inaugural Easter-Egg Hunt was held at the nearby Avondale Park. In 1948, the store would see one of its biggest promotional pushes with the revamping of the third-floor women's department, including 45 new fitting rooms and 10 separate merchandise areas.

Piztiz's Golden Year in 1949
Piztiz's Golden Year in 1949
During his time as president, Isadore Pizitz was responsible for bringing in many famed celebrities like Johnny Unitas, Gayle Sayers, and Fess Parker. Perhaps the most notable celebrity to visit Pizitz was none other than William Boyd, who at the time played Hopalong Cassidy on TV. Boyd visited the store in September of 1951 where a large turnout greeted him. The automatic counting machine registered over 15,000 people before breaking.

On December 31st, 1950, Louis Pizitz announced the acquisition of the adjacent three-story clothing store, the Gould Shop. The "Pizitz Gould Annex" opened on February 8th, 1952 as the Pizitz Store for Men. With their business in downtown booming, the family opened their first branch store located in the nearby town of Bessemer. The store opened on September 17th, 1956 and much like its downtown predecessor it was built from the ground up.

During their 60th Anniversary in 1959, Isadore announce a one-million-dollar project that would remodel and transform every floor of their downtown store. The seventh floor would house a 700-seat auditorium which would be made available to local civic organizations and clubs. During the renovation, Louis Pizitz passed away on June 22nd, 1959. As a sign of respect and tribute, that is often not seen today, several downtown stores took out advertisements to pay their respects.

Less than three months after his death, the Pizitz family announced they would open a third store. The store would be located at the Roebuck Plaza shopping center and would not be in a traditional freestanding building. During this time the Pizitz family brought in Joe Dultz from Bloomingdale's in New York, the man responsible for many of Pizitz's elaborate displays during the holiday seasons.

During the early 1960's, Birmingham was the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement. Louis Pizitz had formed a relationship with the local African-American community although the store did follow the standard custom of segregating. In 1963, the store received multiple bomb threats and a call for an economic boycott when they chose to start the desegregation of their store. Multiple downtown store owners agreed to simultaneously end segregation. During certain days, the stores removed their 'White' and 'Colored' signs and opened their restaurants to everyone.

Not only did the 1960's bring cultural changes, it also brought some of its most notable changes to the Pizitz Family stores. In 1963 a new stored opened in Huntsville at the Parkway City shopping center. Then in 1964, Fred Rauschenberg designed brought forward the new Pizitz logo. New self-service elevators were added to their downtown store and Isadore announced plans to build a six-story parking garage. The seven-story garage would be located diagonally to the store and had the capability to hold 380 vehicles. Opening it December of 1965, patrons could now take a skywalk from the parking garage to the third floor of the store. To close out the 1960's, the sixth Pizitz store opened on August 22nd, 1968 at the Five Points West Shopping Center.

Enchanted Forest



The Enchanted Forest opened in November of 1964 and would last for almost twenty years. The "Talking Christmas Tree", one of the most notable attractions in the forest was added in 1971. The tree proved to be so popular that replicas would be installed in their other stores as well, including the newly opened downtown Montgomery store in 1972. Every year the forest would grow, adding new features. In 1975 the forest included realistic human figures and backdrops that depicted city streets. The "Talking Christmas Tree" was removed and replaced with talking reindeer in 1977. The Enchanted Forest was noted in always reflecting the current culture of that time. After the 1981 Christmas season the forest was removed, but did appear in store windows from 1982 to 1986.

Pizitz Family Portrait from 1982
Pizitz Family Portrait from 1982
(Image Courtesy of Tim Hollis)

Continued Expansion and the Final Years



Expansion continued in the 1970's, with a store opening in Gadsden in 1974, Brookwood Village in 1975, and their tenth store in Florence in 1978. During this time, Pizitz stores featured bake shops, headed by a famed New York chef. Their downtown Montgomery store closed after four years in 1976, but a new store opened inside of the Eastdale Mall in 1977.

The recession of the early 1980's took its toll on the Pizitz stores, forcing closure of all their bakeshops, including the one in their flagship downtown store. In 1983 the downtown store would undergo its final renovation. The auditorium was turned into an advertising department that had been previously located in the Gould Annex. The annex was then closed and several departments inside of the Pizitz Building were absorbed into others.

On March 17th, 1985, Isadore Pizitz passed away after a long battle with cancer. The three Pizitz brothers, Michael, Richard, and Merritt, were determined to keep the family business going. Two more stores were opened, one in Dothan, and the last at the Riverchase Galleria in Hoover.

However, on December 10th, 1986, McRae's, a department store chain based in Jackson, Mississippi announced the acquisition of the Pizitz chain. On January 1st, 1987, the three brothers no longer owned any of the Pizitz stores, marking an end to an 87-year old era.

On February 2nd, 1988, McRae's announced the closure of the downtown store, where it closed for good on the 27th of that month.

The Pizitz Building Today



Bayer Properties acquired the building in 2000 for $1.6 million and went forward with plans to turn the first floor into restaurant and retain space, with the offices occupying the upper six floors. In 2010, the company Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz signed on as lead tenants. This allowed Bayer Properties to proceed with a $60 million renovation in September of that year. The Birmingham City council approved a multimillion-dollar incentive package to get the project underway. In March of 2011, Baker decided to renew their lease in the nearby Wells Fargo Tower has progress was not being made on the Pizitz Building.

In January 2014, Bayer announced that would proceed with the renovation project set to begin that summer with an anticipated completion date of early 2016. Brasfield and Gorrie were awarded a $67 million contract for the renovation of the building. In January of 2016, Bayer released plans for the "Pizitz Food Hall" on the ground floor. This hall would include a central bar, two restaurants, and a space for individuals to experiment with restaurant concepts on a rotating basis.

Update:

As of Summer 2018, the Pizitz Food Hall is open, with further work to be completed in the basement and upper floors.

I would like to thank local author and historian, Tim Hollis, for sharing his expertise and knowledge on the Pizitz Building.

Unless otherwise noted all historical pictures are courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Tutwiler Collections.

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References



1. Hollis, Tim. Pizitz Your Store. Charleston: History, 2010. Print.

2. Tomberlin, Michael. "Bayer Credit Eyed for Pizitz Redo." Birmingham News
         14 Nov. 2008: n. pag. Print.

3. Tomberlin, Michael. "Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz Law Firm to
         Remain in Birmingham's Wells Fargo Tower." Birmingham News 22 Mar. 2011:
         n. pag. Print.


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