Louis Pizitz’s dream from the 1920s has come roaring out of a long slumber almost a century later. As with many things in life, real estate is all about timing, and the Pizitz, a terra cotta masterpiece from the 1920s, is a building whose time has come—again.
Designed by architect Harry Wheelock, the Pizitz building was built in two separate phases. The first phase was completed and occupied in 1923 at a cost of $900,000. The original 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 the two phases of construction came together to form a 225,000-square-foot building, Pizitz’s flagship store. After Pizitz was purchased by McRae’s in the mid-1980s, the downtown store was shuttered in February 1988.
In the 28 years since, the landmark building has remained a silent presence on 19th Street, a testament to the glory days of downtown merchants. Decay set in through the intervening decades while this masterpiece of a building struggled to find a useful life again.
It has been quite the struggle. Bayer Properties purchased the building back in 1999 and began working toward a sensible plan to bring the building back to life. The process took longer than Bayer principals Jeffrey Bayer and David Silverstein thought it would take. In fits and starts the building looked ripe for restoration, only to slide back to wait for another day.
That day has come. 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 what downtown Birmingham once was. 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, temporary office space, ground level Food Hall, an entertainment 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 bar.
In all, the Pizitz is a $70 million renovation of the 1923 department store, a restoration that began in 2015 with a planned opening this October. Bayer Properties, Wisznia Architecture and Development, and Stonehenge Capital are partnering on the redevelopment. Architect of record is Wisznia Architecture + Development; CA & Building Envelope Architect is KPS Group; and the Food Hall is Rule Joy Trammel + Rubio. Brasfield & Gorrie is the general contractor. Project financing is being provided with the assistance of Highland Commercial Mortgage, the Birmingham and Atlanta offices of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the City of Birmingham, US Bank Community Development Corporation, National New Markets Fund L.L.C., Iberia Bank, and ServisFirst Bank.
“Jeffrey and I both felt the building had such historical value to our city. We did not want to see it torn down. We wanted to figure out a way to restore it because of its meaning and deep ties to the community,” Silverstein says. “Our goal was to bring it back as part of the fabric of the downtown community.
“It was a trying process, but timing is everything. I didn’t think it would take as long as it has. But it is coming online at just the right time since the city center is doing so well. Working on a project in your hometown is very special. It is a privilege,” Silverstein says.
Through the years it took to put the project over the top, Silverstein never lost faith in the building. “The people we have working at the city in these various departments are very, very capable,” he says. “We have the capacity to do complete projects here because we have really good people working for our city. The mayor has put together a great organization within the city.”
The building holds deep personal memories for Silverstein. “It is a connection with my childhood. I have fond memories of visiting not only Pizitz but the Loveman’s department store downtown. I remember the display windows and holiday decorations and having lunch upstairs in the cafe with my mother.
“Many years later, when I started practicing law, I remember going to eat lunch at that same Pizitz cafe with Dave Berkowitz (of Berkowitz, Lefkovitz et al., now Baker Donelson). I practiced with him only a short time, but it was a great experience. He would talk to me in that restaurant about the role the downtown merchants played in the Civil Rights Movement back in the 1960s and how central that experience was,” Silverstein says.
This building holds emotional ties for Jeffrey Bayer as well. His father, Ira, operated a jewelry store downtown just a block or so away from Pizitz. “I have many memories of the Pizitz and the Hess families, the class of merchants who really created something special in downtown Birmingham. They were real leaders, especially during the Civil Rights era,” Bayer says.
“The Pizitz building was the most prominent building in Birmingham,” he continues. “It stood for progress, but in the end, it had the life sapped out of it.
“But now all of America is coming back to the urban core. Here in Birmingham, real pioneers like John Lauriello and Robert Simon have really led this charge back to downtown. Firms like Appleseed and others are doing this great creative work to bring life back downtown,” he says.
With the Pizitz building, Bayer says, his firm had several attempts to find commercial office clients for the building, but he says “it was like trying to put square pegs into round holes.”
“Pizitz was always an anchor that tied the city together east to west and north to south,” Bayer notes. With this restoration, it will serve that purpose once again, bridging the development along Second Avenue and down 19th Street to the Railroad Park area. “Now is the time. You can’t force real estate. It has to happen naturally,” Bayer says.