Introduction by Joe O’Donnell
Written by Madoline Markham
Photography by Beau Gustafson
When you walk the hallways of The Pizitz with Jeffrey Bayer, you notice the small things. How will the number be displayed outside the door to one of the apartments? How far from the door to the apartment will the hallway lights be?
These are the kinds of details that matter to Bayer, who is walking through one of the city’s most memorable buildings, the Pizitz department store now reborn as a mixed-use building with commercial, retail, and apartments sharing the space in one of Birmingham’s signature buildings.
Standing at the corner of Second Avenue and 19th Street, right in the heart of Birmingham’s historic retail and theater district, this classic building embodies the very best of the old downtown, now reborn as part of a new downtown shaking off the cobwebs of decades of suburban flight. Featuring six floors dedicated to residential space with 143 multi-family apartments, The Pizitz will also have a mezzanine level with 11,000 square feet of modern office space, a ground level Food Hall, plans for a Sidewalk film venue in the basement, and an attached seven-level parking deck. The Pizitz Food Hall will occupy the ground floor of the building and serve as an incubator with up-and-coming chefs rotating quarterly to feature new culinary talent in the city. There will be two full-service restaurants, an outdoor seating and entertainment area, and a central bar.
In all, the Pizitz is a $70 million renovation of the 1920s-era department store, shuttered since 1988.
Residents will start moving into the building this month. The food hall will open to the city’s foodies next month. Plans for the cinema in the basement continue to jell though an exact opening is not yet known.
The Pizitz has come back to life.
There wasn’t a more significant time of year for Pizitz department store, and the whole city of Birmingham, than the holidays. So there couldn’t be a more appropriate time for its reopening—30 years to the month after longtime employees of the store got news that, after 66 years anchoring the downtown retail scene, the store was selling to McRae’s. Many of those employees had been there 20, 30, 40, or 50 years.
For many who grew up in Birmingham, Christmas wasn’t Christmas without a trip to see the window display scenes filled with moving trains, elves, and more at Pizitz. Inside, the whole store was decorated, but the biggest draw starting in 1964 was the Enchanted Forest that took up about two-thirds of the sixth floor where toys were sold. Lines often were out the door to get in to see moving bears and deer, street scenes, driving automobiles, and Santa himself. A talking Christmas tree was added in 1971 that became such a hit that a version was added at Pizitz’s branch stores in other parts ofthe state.
But you didn’t just ride the bus downtown to go to the Pizitz in December. “The highlight of a weekend was to get dressed in your Sunday best, come to the store on a Saturday, go up to what was then the Camellia Room and then The Terrace for lunch, go to the bookstore up on the mezzanine and spend hours shopping for books with a dollar in hand, and then go shopping for clothes,” recalls Roy Annette Dearman, who started shopping at Pizitz in 1950.
Store founder Mr. Louis Pizitz would greet you, and you entered to the comforting smell of a mixture of homemade candies and bakery items, perfumes, and soaps. You’d browse the Bargain Basement, buy school clothes, and ride the escalator up to see the electric trains and GI Joes or the doll department on the sixth floor. For many, memories of the store are tied to items they still have: a son’s cub scout uniform, a wedding dress, a first baseball glove bought with money saved from a paper route, wedding china, a set of furniture, dolls in a doll cabinet. It was all a part of the magic that was downtown Birmingham in its retail heyday.
Dearman’s goal was always to work for Pizitz because she felt so at home there, and that’s exactly what she did, coming on as a trainee in 1971 and going on to work as a buyer. “It was a great family atmosphere,” she recalls. “You left your family to come to work, and then when you got to work, you were with your second family that could be as close as your real family. In fact, the Pizitzes made it that way, and it filtered down to everybody.”
Former store employees remember meeting celebrities including actress Eva Gabor of Green Acres fame, Tony Award winner Pearl Bailey, quarterback Joe Namath, Auburn Football Coach Shug Jordan, and Alabama Football Coach Bear Bryant. The store also launched countless retail careers. Many would stay at Pizitz for years, but others would go on to work in New York and other big cities.
Jo Lolly remembers the fashion shows and special events like an indoor ice skating rink at the store after she joined in 1960 as its first woman executive trainee. “We had some fabulous times because it was in the heyday of the ’60s with miniskirts and special events and all the wonderful, wonderful fashions that burst the junior market apart,” she says. “Retailing has been my life, and I got started here.”
Jack Thomas Jr. has vivid memories of the hustle and bustle inside when shopping with his grandmother in the ’40s and ’50s. When he was hired as an assistant buyer in major appliances, TV, and stereo department in 1974, he’d often look over at the
life-sized oil portrait of Louis Pizitz. “I’d stop and look at it from time to time and just think, ‘Wow, what all he’s accomplished in his life, and that this man is actually responsible for this structure and for all the branches of this store,’” he says. Former employee John Gardener, who came on staff in 1926, remembers when Louis’ son Isadore and his wife, Mickey, married, and George Martin, who started in 1962, remembers celebrating the couple’s 50th anniversary.
Other former employees remember times that mark national history: serving Thanksgiving meals at the store during the Great Depression, hanging doves of peace on the windows the day World War II ended, the downturn in business that came when blacks boycotted stores in a call for integration, and the subsequent integration that all the large department stores downtown began at the same time in 1963 as “White Only” signs came down and black sales persons came on staff.
Most well known downtown Birmingham retailers had closed during the late 1970s and 1980s, and in 1985 Montgomery Ward closed its catalog business after 113 years. But in many ways, Pizitz avoided the trend. At its peak the store had more than 750 employees in 75 departments with $14 million in merchandise and sales. The store finally sold in 1986 at a point when the company was at its highest sales volume and profit ever, and McRae’s made a strong, unsolicited offer. The reason Pizitz remained successful was because of the employees, Louis’ grandson Michael says. It was their employees who made them different, who created the legacy that will be tapped when the building’s doors reopen this month.