First Look: Flagship Walgreens Inside Historic Noel State Bank Building

One of Chicagoland’s most prominent retailers has cleaned up one of Chicago’s grossest corners.

Walgreens’ in-house architect, Dan Garneau, and head of store development, Michael De Fazio.

The new Walgreens flagship store opens tomorrow (November 21, 2012) at the corner of West North Avenue and North Damen Avenue in Bucktown.  It is right on the border of Bucktown and Wicker Park, a fact acknowledged in the standards flying from the facade.

The new drug store is in Gardner Coughlen’s old Noel State Bank building, a city landmark erected in 1921.The last bank to occupy the space moved out in 2005, and the space has been vacant since then.

Walgreens showed up two years ago and began working with the city to resurrect the building in a manner that is not only sensitive to its history, but that celebrates its past.  Walgreens’ in-house architect, Dan Garneau proudly took us on a tour of the new property, pointing out dozens of pieces of history preserved, referenced, and restored.

It starts at the main entrance, at the apex of the flatiron-shaped plot.  A former occupant of the building put in a revolving door that, while it looked authentic, turned out to be too new to stay.  The city ordered Walgreens to remove the doors, but keep the drum they were set in.  The solution to closing off the lobby from the elements is now a pair of curved sliding glass doors.  According to Michael De Fazio, the head of all Walgreens construction projects, it’s only the second building in the world with such curved mechanical doors.  The others are at the headquarters of the Taser company.

The history continues inside the vestibule, where a picture of the old Noel State Bank interior is posted behind the the first half of the Walgreens slogan, “At the corner of yesterday and tomorrow.”  The tile floor is original, though restored.  Parts of it were badly damaged.  Fortunately, it extended into the main portion of the building, so there were plenty of replacement tiles available to make things right.  The huge, curved cast iron ventilation grates are also original, as is the border and the pendant light fixture.

The vestibule opens onto the main selling floor — an expansive double-height space made possible by relocating the escalators from the center of the building to the south side.

The first thing you notice is the huge skylight — again, an original feature.  It was found to be completely intact, and so was removed piece by piece, cleaned, and replaced.  Surrounding the skylight are dozens of hexagonal ceiling trays, each richly ornamented.  These, too, were found to be in good shape, so the original paint was cleaned instead of replaced.  In what is believed to be a nod to the building’s original owners, the hexagons form hundreds of Stars of David across the ceiling.

Above the main selling floor is a mezzanine level with the beauty and cosmetics section.    It is from here that you can really appreciate the space, especially the ceiling, the clerestory windows, and the view onto the busy intersection beyond.

Like most basements, this one is chock full of history.  It used to be just storage and mechanical space.  Now it is the pharmacy department, with what must be the nicest pharmacy waiting room in the Midwest.  It looks like the lobby of a fancy advertising agency in Minneapolis.  But instead of having a trophy case lined with ad industry awards, it has more artifacts of Walgreens days gone by — original apothecary implements and vessels, including a large globe of red water which used to be the international symbol for “pharmacy” and a container used for medicinal alcohol during prohibition.

The rest of the basement is, as most basements are, a cramped space.  This has been alleviated by having lines of vaulted illuminated panels along the aisles, simulating skylights.

In the back is the “vitamin vault.”  Quite literally, this was the bank vault and it has been converted for the sale of vitamins.  But even if you’re already all fortified, it’s worth going inside.  The safe deposit boxes on the right side of the wall have been welded closed, with a few of them sticking out.  Those act as shelves for even more Walgreens history — a selection of original Walgreens products from antiquity, courtesy of the Walgreens Foundation.

The people who design stores for Walgreens have done a great job with this project.  They’ve turned a derelict building into an active, engaging space that offers a shopping opportunity needed in this area.  But the fact remains, it is a Walgreens.  And that brings certain problems.

There’s a running joke about how you can tell if a Walgreens is open or not by the number of vagrants outside.  And there really is something about Walgreens stores that attract the homeless, the helpless, grifters, drifters, and the habitally unwashed.  It only got worse when Walgreens started selling booze.

To be fair, this complicated corner already has more than its fair share of undesireables, so the Walgreens impact could be negligible.  But what this corner and this neighborhood needs is a pharmacy, not a liquor store.

The Walgreens people are aware that their good intentions are at the mercy of the random world outside.  They know it’s only a matter of time (hours? minutes?) before someone with a can of spray paint and a sense of entitlement decides to “tag” the property.  That’s why the lower half of the first floor is coated in anti-graffiti paint.

Walgreen is employing the only tactic it has to combat thugs — it’s going to be open 24 hours.  A well-lit exterior will discourage crime, and having people arrive on foot instead of by car will help as well.

Because of its urban location, Walgreens expects that most of its customers will walk to the store, instead of driving, which is why it has only a tiny parking lot at the back, with the handicapped entrance.

In spite of the potential downsides, which are not unique to this corner, this neighborhood, or even this city, the flagship Walgreens is a welcome addition to the neighborhood, especially turning an extremely prominent location from a vacant storefront into an active business.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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