The Beginning of Pizitz
The Pizitz Department Stores got their beginning in the late 19th century. On encouragement from his wife, Louis Pizitz moved from Swainsboro, Georgia to Birmingham, Alabama. Believing he would lose everything in Birmingham and would have to move back to Swainsboro, he would soon make it big. After immigrating from Poland just ten years earlier, he would find himself living out the American Dream in Birmingham.
Louis Pizitz opened his first store on what may have been 23rd Street and First Avenue in downtown. Soon after, he would open a new store on the corner of Second Avenue and 19th Street on April 15th, 1899. The first newspaper ads used the moniker "The People's Store", which quickly changed to "Your Store". For the next 87 years, it would remain there under the Pizitz family ownership.
By the 1920's, Louis Pizitz's store became known as the Louis Pizitz Dry Goods Company. The Pizitz Building that is seen today was built in two separate phases designed by architect Harry Wheelock. The first phase was completed and occupied in 1923 at a cost of $900,000. This building occupied the western most part facing Second Avenue. The original corner store was demolished in January of 1925 and the second phase of the construction began at a cost of $675,000. The remainder of the seven story building was completed in 1925 and connected to the building built in 1923. The most notable feature of the Pizitz Building is the elaborate Terra Cotta facade that is still seen today. After completion, the eight story (including a basement), 225,000 square foot building became Louis Pizitz's flagship store.
Defeating the Great Depression
In 1924, Louis Pizitz appointed his son, Isadore, President of the company. By 1929 the Great Depression hit and Pizitz owed over a million dollars to two different banks. During this time he offered his building but fortunately for him, they did not take him up on his offer. By the mid 1930's he was able to start paying off his debts and turn the downtown store profitable once more.
It was during this time that Louis Pizitz made several contributions to the city of Birmingham that left him with a lasting legacy. Every Thanksgiving even during the Depression, he would serve a meal for the needy in his store. During the Great Depression, the State of Alabama could not afford to pay their schoolteachers and instead gave them scrip. Against the advice of many, Pizitz continued to take the scrip and eventually the state paid them off in 1934. Pizitz also forged relationships with the Birmingham and Jefferson County school systems in offering to buy textbooks for the students, when they could not. Throughout the rest of his life, Pizitz never stopped short of helping anyone in need.
Pizitz Changes and Grows
In 1946, St. Nicholas arrived at the second floor toy department on the first Saturday of November. The local radio station, WBRC would be responsible for their seasonal Santa Clause program. During this time, Pizitz and WAPI teamed up to have an electronic news sign displayed between the second and third floor windows. This likely only lasted a couple of years.
The first of several multimillion dollar renovations would get under way in 1947. Air conditioning was added to every floor along with escalators that would take shoppers from the first to the fourth floor. Also in 1947, they introduced an Easter Egg hunt at the nearby Avondale Park and lasting into the 1960's, the Easter Bunny was found in "Bunnyland" at the Pizitz store. 1948 would see one of Pizitz's biggest promotional pushes, with the revamping of the third floor women's department including 45 new fitting rooms, and 10 separate merchandise areas.
While business in their downtown store was booming, in 1956 the Pizitz family opened the first branch store in Bessemer. This was the first store outside of the downtown store to be owned by the Louis Pizitz family. A previous store in Bessemer had been owned by a different side of the family, as was the case with the Pizitz stores in Tuscaloosa. The Bessemer store opened September 17th, 1956 after being built from the ground up, much like the downtown Birmingham store.
During the Sixtieth Anniversary in 1959, Isadore Pizitz announced a one million dollar remodel project that would transform every floor of the downtown store. The seventh floor would become a seven-hundred seat auditorium that would be made available to local clubs and civic organizations. While Pizitz was in the middle of a transformation their founder and chairman, Louis Pizitz, would pass away on June 22nd, 1959. In a sign of respect and tribute not often seen today, many downtown stores took out advertisements to pay tribute.
Less than three months after his death, the Pizitz family announced that they would build their third store. It would be located at the Roebuck Plaza, and would be the first store located in a shopping center, and not on its own as a freestanding building. The store opened March of 1961. Perhaps the most notable thing people remember most of Pizitz during this time was their elaborate displays during the holidays. The man responsible for this was none other than Joe Dultz, who had come from Bloomingdale's in New York.
If one is familiar with history, then you know Birmingham and Alabama was at the center of the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960's. It is noted that Louis Pizitz had always formed a good relationship with the African American community although the downtown Pizitz store always followed the custom of segregation. During 1963, the Pizitz building received multiple bomb threats and a call for an economic boycott. During that time, downtown store owners agreed to desegregate their stores simultaneously. On certain days every store removed their "White" and "Colored" signs and opened their restaurants to everyone. And just like that, Pizitz moved on.
Not only did the 1960's bring cultural changes to the store, it also brought some of its most notable changes. In 1963, a new Pizitz store was opened in Huntsville at the Parkway City shopping center. Perhaps the biggest year of change for the downtown Pizitz store was 1964. That year Fred Rauschenberg designed and brought forward the new Pizitz logo, the famed Enchanted Forest made its inaugural debut on the sixth floor, new self service elevators were added, and finally, Isadore Pizitz announced plans to build a six story parking garage. The parking garage would be located diagonally across from the store. It would occupy a flat lot that was originally used to accommodate their customer's automobiles. The seven-story parking garage opened in December of 1965 with the capability to hold 380 automobiles. A skywalk was built to transport customers from the parking garage to the third floor of the store.
Like any other department store, Pizitz would need to remake their image to appeal to new cultural trends. In the late 1960's, they would appeal to the fast growing youth culture and finally lose its long held reputation as a cheaper class store. Macy's was the first store in the nation to carry the miniskirt, it was said that Pizitz was the second. During the 1960's, a shift was seen from the downtown shopper to new enclosed malls that showcased several stores. in 1966, Pizitz would occupy one of the anchor stores of the newly built Eastwood Mall, the first enclosed shopping mall in the south. At this time, the Pizitz building would undergo another renovation lasting from 1966 to 1967. The auditorium would be relocated to the sixth floor and the Enchanted Forest would be expanded. Also escalators were added to the fifth and sixth floors. Their sixth store would open on August 22nd, 1968 at the Five Points West Shopping Center.
The Enchanted Forest began in November of 1964 and would last for the next twenty years. One of the most notable features of the Enchanted Forest was the Talking Christmas Tree, which saw its debut in 1971. The tree was so popular, it would be installed into their other stores as well, including the newly opened downtown Montgomery store in 1972. Every year the forest would get bigger and better, and include new features. In 1975 the forest included realistic human figures and backdrops that depicted city streets for the first time. The Talking Christmas Tree would be replaced by talking reindeer in 1977. The Enchanted Forest would always change to reflect the culture of that time. The Enchanted Forest would end after the 1981 Christmas season and return to a store window from 1982 to 1986, where it got its beginning.
More Branching Out and the End of Pizitz
The Pizitz Stores continued to expand, with a store opening in Gadsden in 1974, Brookwood Village in 1975, and their tenth store in Florence in 1978. Also during this time, Pizitz included bake shops, headed by a famed New York chef in most of their stores. The downtown Montgomery store would close in 1976, but a new store would open there in 1977 at the Eastdale Mall. The Recession of the early 1980's would hit the Pizitz stores, forcing the closure of their bakeshops, including the one downtown. In 1983, the Pizitz Building would undergo its last renovation. The auditorium was turned into an advertising department that was previously located in the Gould Annex. The Gould annex would then be closed, and many departments in the Pizitz Building would be 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 company going. Two more Pizitz stores were opened in Dothan and the Riverchase Galleria in Hoover. But on December 10th, 1986, McRae's a department store chain based in Jackson, Mississippi announced that it would be taking over the Pizitz chain. On January 1st, 1987, the three Pizitz brothers no longer owned Pizitz. It would mark the end of an 87 year era. McRae's announced on February 2nd, 1988 that they would close the downtown store, with the store closing for good on the 27th of the same month.
The Pizitz Building Today
Bayer Properties acquired the building in 2000 for $1.6 million, and in 2010 went forward with plans to turn the first floor into restaurant and retail space, with office space on the upper six floors. In 2010, the company Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz signed on as the lead tenants. This allowed Bayer Properties to proceed with a $60 million renovation in September of the same year. 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 Wells Fargo Tower since progress was not being made.
Today the building sits empty as Bayer Properties is still looking for a company to step forward and help fill the building. The National Park Service has granted Bayer Properties a historic preservation certificate.
Forgotten Southeast 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.
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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