|City/Town: • Birmingham
|Location Class: • Commercial
|Built: • 1925 | Abandoned: • 1988
|Status: • Restored (2016)
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit
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Pizitz Department Store
Pizitz was a family-owned chain of department stores founded in 1899 in Birmingham, Alabama by Louis Pizitz as the Louis Pizitz Dry Goods Company. It became one of the best-known names in local retailing until it was sold to McRae’s in 1986. At its peak there were 13 Pizitz stores in operation; nine in Birmingham, two in Huntsville, and one each in Florence, Tuscaloosa, and Montgomery. The chain’s flagship store was located in the 8-story 225,000 square-foot Pizitz building in downtown Birmingham which opened in 1923. Ernest van Vleck and Frank Gaertner of the New York-based architecture firm Starrett & van Vleck consulted in the design of the building, while the building’s construction was under the supervision of local architect Harry B. Wheelock.
Pizitz was sold to John S. Jemison and Associates in 1959. That year the new owners announced a $1 million project to modernize and improve the interiors at the flagship Birmingham store. The firm of Ketchum & Sharp Architects of New York was commissioned to design interior layouts, with Lawrence Whitten of Birmingham as their associate responsible for construction documents. Among the changes were electrical and air-conditioning upgrades, all-new decorative fixtures, improved retail layouts (especially on the main floor, first floor, and third floor), and a new fourth-floor auditorium capable of hosting events for up to 700 people. A parking deck was added next to the downtown store in 1965 along with a skywalk that took shoppers into the store next to a bakery counter.
In 1986, the chain was sold to Jackson, Mississippi-based McRae’s, although the Pizitz family retained ownership of many of the actual buildings. The flagship store was shuttered in 1988 while the other locations were converted to McRae’s.
McRae’s was founded in 1902 by Samuel P. McRae as a dry goods store. The business rapidly grew with sales increasing from only $1 million in 1955 to $10 million in 1970. The first location outside Mississippi opened in University Mall in Pensacola, Florida in 1974. The company expanded to Alabama with its acquisition of the Pizitz department store chain in 1986. The company remained a family-owned business throughout the decades and was considered one of the most successful family-owned businesses in the country.
McRae’s was acquired by Tennessee-based Proffitt’s in 1994 in a transaction that The New York Times referred to as “a case of a little fish swallowing a bigger one.” After the sale, McRae’s stores retained their name and were operated as a separate subsidiary. Proffitt’s merged with Saks Holdings, owner of Saks Fifth Avenue, in 1998. As Saks began rebranding itself as a luxury chain of department stores, its mid-range chains were put up for sale. In 2005, Charlotte-based Belk, the nation’s largest privately owned department store chain, bought Proffitt’s and McRae’s. On March 8, 2006, most of McRae’s stores were downgraded into Belk stores.
The building was purchased for $1.6 million in 2000 by Bayer Properties for redevelopment. In January 2016, Bayer announced its plans for the “Pizitz Food Hall” on the ground floor of the building. Opening in February 2017, the “food hall” was inspired by popular destinations like Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts; Gotham West Market in New York, New York; Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Ponce City Market in Atlanta, Georgia; and St Roch Market in New Orleans, Louisiana. The basement contains office space and a two-screen cinema operated by Sidewalk Film Festival. The top floors contain apartments that began leasing in December 2016.