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In my December of 2010 article describing the then new Walgreens on Madison in Oak Park, I gushed at how wonderful the project addressed issues of our time, including preservation, urban design, sustainability and architecture. The store was a breakthrough achievement for preservation in the village and Walgreen's new urban-centric expansion. Contrasting radically with the banal cookie-cutter brick boxes surrounded by parking, this monster company (7,500 stores) has opened its eyes to the potential of architecture. For years Walgreens was the soulless corporation I loved to hate due to its relentless duplication of boring stores. But not anymore.
Now Walgreens has suddenly become the one-to-watch and Oak Park should be proud to have stood up to them, coaching them into building the first store containing character and heart. The Madison store has led to five additional stores that are described as "flagship incubators for innovation." Walgreens is not your typical drugstore anymore, but rebranded to be "health and living destinations." The expansion strategy is taking advantage of the dense urban locations and desire to become a good neighbor in the process. This is a creative idea with traction.
The new Bucktown store occupies a 29,000-square foot, two-story space, formerly Noel State Bank building that had sat empty for seven years. A single discrete 'W' red Walgreens logo above the main entrance door marks the location at the six-corner intersection at North, Milwaukee and Damen. The white historic terra-cotta exterior has been restored with very little alterations. The entry lobby compresses and releases customers into the dramatic light filled two-story former banking room. The monumental wedge shaped and colonnaded room is a spectacular surprise. Designed as an urban neighborhood store encouraging walking, only six short-term parking spaces are provided on the north side or behind the building.
The 1919 Neo-classic Bank has been completely adapted to its new retail use with an inspired vertical planning scheme. Due to the size of the footprint, the three floors are connected by an elevator and escalators. The mezzanine contains the beauty department overlooking the main floor houses convenience products, the café and check-out. Watch out Starbucks!
The original art glass octagon skylight has been restored infusing the store with brilliant sunlight. Framing the skylight is an intricate polychrome coffered ceiling with integrated lighting. This reveals the future of the brand with a prototype like no other.
Health, Personal Care and the Pharmacy are on the lower level. The main isle is illuminated by a faux skylight to break the image of a basement. Corporate history becomes an integral part of the store message. Display windows at the pharmacy waiting area contain interesting historic packages establishing the history of this local company. Original blueprints of the building are displayed at the monumental vault entrance. The safety deposit boxes become a whimsical display of historic products in plexiglass boxes, dubbed the "The Vitamin Vault."
The key here is the prototypical plan has been tweaked, re-imagined to fit and function within this grand historic space. The bank is once again an anchor and asset to serve the neighborhood. Some would argue that a drugstore is not an appropriate use for this dignified classical room. I would suggest that this very stable business makes a great deal of sense located at the heart of Bucktown. The contrast of use makes for an exciting experience. Who says a drugstore can't be beautiful and interesting?
What is exciting about Walgreen's new interest in architecture and adaptive reuse is the potential it holds in communities across the nation. The stores get wonderful exposure, the locations are prime and the contents separate the stores from their competitors. Suddenly CVS /Pharmacy seems dated. It is exciting to see Walgreens do the right thing, reinventing themselves through architecture.
Oak Parker Garret Eakin is a practicing architect, preservation commissioner and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.