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This is a story that has come full circle. It's about a man who made a fortune manufacturing patent medicines and founded a bank, who built a grand building for that bank, and, not long thereafter, watched that bank fail, and the grand building pass from his hands, to ultimately stand empty and abandoned, until . . .
Now that grand building, constructed as the Noel State Bank, at 1601 North Milwaukee, has found new life as a flagship store of the same Walgreens corporation that, itself, began in Chicago in 1901, when a young Charles Walgreen opened his first pharmacy in Barrett's Hotel in the neighborhood now known as Bronzeville, with the idea, not unlike that of today's corporate leaders, of reinventing the drugstore.
Joseph R. Noel was born in Texas in 1872, the only son of a father who, himself, had assisted his own father's medical practice in Niles, Michigan. Joseph's father, Theophilus Noel, was a Confederate solider who ran messages to the Union generals for Robert E. Lee. Before he left Texas, he made a small fortune during an oil boom selling drilling rights to his property to speculators convinced there was oil on the land even when Theophilus knew there was not. But Theo did
discover "a certain mineral substance containing valuable medicinal properties, deposited at a locality termed Damon Mound, in Brazoria county in the State of Texas, and spent many years in experimenting with the said mineral substance with a view of providing a merchantable article as a medicine for divers ailments and diseases." In 1886, Theo began selling it in powder form as Vitae-ore, "Nature's Doctor for Mankind!", a curative for everything from Rheumatism and La Grippe, to Female Complaint and General Debility.
Sold through advertising vigorously argued, Vitae-ore became a great success. Young Joseph R. Noel attended Chicago's Rush Medical College and became a doctor, but he ended his practice in 1897 to manage his father's business. On October 28, 1905 he took on banking, establishing the North West Savings Bank on the site of the current Northwest Tower. Joseph was sole proprietor of the bank until 1909, when it was incorporated under state charter. In 1917, the name was changed to Noel State Bank "in order to avoid confusion, as there were five other banks with 'North' in their names."
With deposits nearing $4 million, Noel commissioned a new structure for the bank on a site just across the street. It was designed by Gardner C. Coughlen of Weary and Alford to be "the dernier cri in bank architecture in Chicago. . . The exterior will be in the classic Corinthian order based on the best Roman examples . . . " Exclusive of site, the cost was $400,000. It was completed in 1919. Theo never saw it; he died the year before, age 77.
Revival-style, the design of the bank expresses an image of permanence and security. The exterior is clad entirely in ornamental terra cotta. Large windows are divided by engaged pilasters topped with Corinthian capitals, and a prominent cornice wraps around the rounded corners of the building
Just as the Northwestern Trust and Savings was described as a Polish bank, Joseph's was described as "the Jewish Noel State Bank." The grid of the enormous ceiling resolves into six-point Stars of David.
Like so many neighborhood financial institutions that built grand edifices for themselves during the boom of the 1920's, the Noel State Bank was done in by the Great Depression. It closed, at the request of its Board of Directors, on June 18, 1931, following several runs that had reduced deposits by almost half in less than two months. Joseph R. Noel died, at his Evanston home, in 1940. The building became Fairfield Savings, and then Midwest Bank and then, in 2005, empty, which is how it remained with the exception of rare events such as a party thrown by Nike
"We spent from March of 2010 until June of this year rehabilitating this building," says Mike DeFazio, Walgreens Senior Director of Store Concepts. "We cleaned it, restored it back to the original look. The lighting is all original lighting. We restored it all. We pulled the skylight out, sent it out and had it resorted back to its original specifications."
Wicker Park is the fifth Walgreens "flagship" store. Another opened at State and Randolph earlier this year, with others in Las Vegas, Puerto Rico and a Duane Reade flagship at the 1930 40 Wall Street - renamed The Trump Building - in what had been a long-closed, classically styled, 28-foot-high former main transaction hall for the Bank of Manhattan. "If you know anything about Donald Trump," says DeFazio, "you know he's very particular about what he does with his property." [In Chicago, he's left the retail portion of the Trump International Hotel and Tower riverwalk empty for years awaiting tenants that meet his standards.]
"He allowed us to put a Duane Reade inside of one of his buildings," continues DeFazio, "but it's done in a way that it protected the architecture. And it created an atmosphere that was OK for his building. And that says something, because he's very particular."
The flagships are incubators for innovation. "We think," says DeFazio, "that, especially in urban environments, we can be a more significant player in the convenience side of the business. It's not that we want to do less pharmacy business - we want to continue to grow our pharmacy business - [but] this kind of tells people we're different. We're not just a drug store anymore. Now we're a health and living destination for everyone in America. We don't say "drug store" anymore. We say health and deli living destination. That's the kind of message we want to send out. The look and feel and the content and relevance is going to be dedicated to where that store is located."
The most radical part of the Walgreens at Noel State Bank is not the added emphasis on pre-packaged foods and other convenience products. It's that there simply wasn't enough space on the main floor, however huge, to hold all the product, so categories have been split up.
"Usually beauty and health are together, "explains DeFazio. "Convenience [the category] always has to be convenient. Otherwise we'd have to call it something besides convenience, right? And it's always usually with cash [checkout], so wherever cash is, we usually have convenience. If you look at a prototypical Walgreens, you go in through beauty, you cycle through health, you come out through convenience, you pay. It's kind of a round store, right?"
"This is the first time we've separated beauty and health. We dedicated an intimate beauty situation upstairs for women. We have all of health and personal care on the lower level with the pharmacy. This is a test for us. We're going to see how it works."
"Total box is 29,000 square feet and change. Selling square footage is about 19. We break it out three ways, This is about 11,000 square feet on the main level, the upper level's about 4, downstairs is the same size, but half of it is stock area. That was driven by the vaults that are downstairs. It was just cost-prohibitive to take them out." One of the vaults is used for storage. The other has been pressed into service as the "Vitamin Vault", with a display of old products along the wall of safety deposit boxes.
|photo courtesy of Walgreens|
The mezzanine is "beauty," the basement is "health", designed to not look like a basement through a very open escalator bay and lighting that looks like a skylight over the center aisle.
The pharmacy, in the back, combines tradition and innovation. Customers can use the web to refill prescriptions and pick them up at a assigned kiosk, and the pharmacist is no longer stuck behind the counter, but sits at an open desk in a more informal setting. Three window displays along the back wall of an adjacent seating area hold a collection of historic packages.
"This is all from the Walgreens Historical Foundation," says DeFazio. "We have thousands of items, and I'm going to use all of it at some point. It's just sitting in storage cabinets. It's a shame. I think it's a great visual presence to talk about our history. "
The new flagship makes the building's history an integral part of the design. An original blueprint and other drawings found in a box discovered tucked away in the basement have been framed and put on display, as is a passbook from the original bank. Vintage photographs are mounted just below the ceiling of the Vitamin Vault.
And then there's the spectacular main hall, which has been passed down through the decades remarkably unaltered. A thick layer of grime seems to have sealed it off from damage. Most of the heavy-duty rehab work was in areas the public will never see.
Dan Garneau, the Regional Development Manager who was the company's architect on the project, explains:
"Our building wall is right on the property line. It's a vaulted sidewalk, and the vault continues into our lower level. Part of our space is the vault underneath the city sidewalk. Water was coming down into the vault. We had a lower level that was basically an empty shell of space, unused for anything apart from storage and mechanical. The last tenant was Midwest Bank. They used the area in the vault - a very small area - and then sort of left the rest of it go to nature. So we had extensive structural work needed to make sure the vault was secure. A lot of waterproofing. A lot of drains and drain tile."
The building is an official designation, so the architects had to work closely with the Commission on Chicago Landmarks on the rehab. Garneau was allowed to remove a non-contributing stairway in the middle of the sales floor leading down to vault, but the small windows at the base of the walls were another story. "We actually asked," recalls Garneau, "if there was any way we could enlarge some of the windows, and they said, no, we don't want to change anything that's exterior to the building, and we said, OK, we understand. We're just gathering information."
|photo: Google Maps|
"The skylight is original to the building. That's something we took piece by piece and restored and put back in. Between the ceiling and the roof there's about six to eight feet of interstitial space. It's where the catwalks are that they used to change all the lights. And it's also where the support for the ceiling is. It's thousands of wires that attach to the plaster ceiling and support it. It's hung from the roof trusses. Above the skylight in the ceiling there's actually a domed skylight on the roof that lets the light down. The light you see is the actual sunlight."
"We had the one pilaster at the end, the capital is plaster recast. The rest are all original. The pilasters are terra cotta. The ceiling is all plaster. The ceiling we just had to clean. The paint is original to the ceiling. " The interior terra cotta was finished to look like stone, and some of that finish had to be re-applied, using profiles from that box they found in the basement. Unobstrusive circular diffusers were added just below the ceiling for ventilation.
In some ways, the original design is very modern. The white terra cotta exterior is simple and restrained, and the bulk of the interior is a single bravura space, completely unobstructed, within a glass-filled envelope whose massive windows bring the outside in, much as a curtain wall would do.
The ornamental elements of the ceiling are framed in a strong geometry. The shelving and furnishings sit lightly within the dramatic backdrop. They inhabit rather than obscure. The tension between old and new finds a comfortable balance. Walgreens has taken heat for destroying historic buildings for new construction, but at Noel State Bank, they've arrived at a very graceful solution that celebrates the historic urban fabric even as it pushes it forward.