Apr 212010
Spy Twin Cities - Gene Johnson, long the man behind Burch Pharmacy, Minneapolis

Gene Johnson’s history with Burch Pharmacy spans 60 of its 97 years. He started as a delivery boy in 1951, ran the Minneapolis drugstore from 1961 to 1999, and worked mornings behind the pharmacy counter right up to the store’s closing in April 2010.


The Burch Pharmacy Story

THE BURCH PHARMACY STORY starts with two pharmacist-businessmen named George, each of whom opened pharmacies in the Lowry Hill neighborhood of Minneapolis in the decade before World War I.

It took two decades, but eventually the two pharmacies they started—the Ball Pharmacy and the Burch Pharmacy—became one.

The story of Burch Pharmacy is in part a mirror of social history, reflecting shifts in culture, commerce, and drugstore practices. Closing in April 2010 after 97 years in the Lowry Hill neighborhood of Minneapolis, Burch Pharmacy was one of the last links to the bustling streetscapes of early- to mid-20th-century city life—the era of humming streetcars and human-scale neighborhoods, with an impressive mosaic of drugstores, grocers, and other small shops lining avenues across the Twin Cities.

A telling factoid: The 1948 Minneapolis City Directory listed 215 drugstores across the city, all but a handful independently owned. In 2010, exactly one of those remained: Burch Pharmacy.

The Burch Story is also, as it happens, the stuff of a good biopic, with a few singular and even juicy twists in the Burch backstory. Among them: the spectacular triumph of an ingenious striver, the lively duels of drug-fiend burglars and pistol-packing pharmacists, one catastrophic olive oil fire, two fatal holdups, and the tragic end of the scion of a prominent Midwestern family.

THE STORY CONTINUES: Burch Pharmacy, Meet Burch Steak

THE DEMISE OF BURCH PHARMACY on April 30, 2010, seemed to mark the end of a long Minneapolis story. The drugstore on the corner of Franklin and Hennepin was a beloved fixture in the Lowry Hill neighborhood. It got its start in the days of horse-drawn streetcars, came of age in an era when small grocers and drugstores dotted street corners across the Twin Cities, and enjoyed many years as a quasi-department store and thriving lunch spot. By the time of its demise it was one of the Twin Cities’ last surviving independent drugstores.

The story of Burch Pharmacy seemed destined to be elegiac, one that chronicled the rise and fall of one of the last links to a vanishing era … until the spring of 2012. Two years almost to the day from Burch’s closing, Twin Cities restauranteur Isaac Becker (of 112 Eatery and Bar La Grassa) announced that the iconic drugstore would be reborn as a restaurant.

Opened in February 2013, the new restaurant preserves the 1910 Burch building, designed by an iconic Minneapolis architect. Dubbed Burch Steak and Pizza, the eatery also carries on the Burch name—ironic considering that founding pharmacy owner George Burch checked out of the business in Year 4 of its 97-year run.

In any case, I’m pleased to share what I’ve learned about the century-long Burch back story—and pleased that the story is is not only elegy, but prologue, as an iconic neighborhood mainstay continues, reinvented, into a new century.

SpyTwinCities - Cal Mathieson: With the April 2010 closing of Burch Pharmacy, he's the last owner of Burch Pharmacy, Minneapolis

Cal Mathieson, the last owner-pharmacist in Burch Pharmacy’s 97-year history.

Burch Pharmacy—The Beginning: George A. Ball

Indeed there was a person named George Burch, the eponymous founder of Burch Pharmacy. But our tale really begins with another George: George A. Ball (1872-1932), a striver and innovator who parlayed a pharmacy career into tremendous business success—and who also twice cleared the way for a competitor named George Burch.

In 1894, the 22-year-old Ball, of St. Paul, passed the Minnesota State Board of Pharmacy exam to become a pharmacist, having a year earlier aced the assistant pharmacist exam. After working as a prescription clerk at the Opera House Drug Co. at Sixth & Hennepin, Ball rustled up $20,000 capital to incorporate his own business, Ball Drug, in 1898. It’s unclear exactly what occupied him for the next few years, but by 1907, he was the owner of Ball’s Drug Store in a brand-new one-story brick building at 2200-2204 South Dupont (aka 2200 Hennepin).

Hennepin Avenue at Colfax, looking south, 1895 MNHS photo.

By 1895, Lowry Hill already was becoming a well-settled district, with new streetcars spurring residential growth. Photo shows Hennepin Avenue where it meets Colfax, looking south. Ball’s Pharmacy at Dupont & Hennepin would open 12 years later a block ahead on the right.

The location was a good one, along the new electric streetcar line spurring development of prosperous blocks adjacent to Lowry Hall, the city’s fanciest address. Many mansions had been built since the 1880s on and around the leveled-off hill between the lakes and downtown, an area platted by real-estate-and-streetcar tycoon Thomas Lowry and marketed as “high, sightly, and attractive … the choicest place for elegant residences.”

Business nodes sprang up at streetcar stops along Hennepin; leafy blocks between Hennepin and the newly beautified Lake of the Isles filled in with Queen Anne and Colonial Revival homes, and with upscale apartment houses closer to Hennepin. The building in which George Ball opened his pharmacy at the corner of Dupont and Hennepin was erected in August 1906 by the R. G. Winter jewelry company, which shared storefront space with Ball’s Drug along with the Dupont Grocery and Meat Company owned by C.A.C. Kallestad. Interestingly, the building was designed by Minneapolis architects Boehme & Cordella, who went on a year later to design the Swan Turbblad residence in Minneapolis (later the Swedish Institute).

Just a few years earlier, neighborhood residents had reared up against Winter’s building plans, stridently opposed to the idea of a drugstore—tellingly lumped in with livery stables—“treading upon their exclusive residence district,” as the Minneapolis Morning Tribune reported under the unequivocal headline “Not Wanted.” Late 19th-century drugstores could be unsavory places to a general clientele—dimly lit apothecaries filled with bottled nostrums cut with booze, laced with cocaine, or possibly tainted by bacteria. That was changing by the early 20th century: Pharmacies were on the rise, newly attentive to customer service, reined in by regulation (such as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906), and beginning to ride a soda fountain craze that would usher in the golden age of the popular American corner drugstore.

SpyTC.com Ball Pharmacy, Minneapolis, Fire

Minneapolis Tribune story on the fire that propelled Ball Pharmacy from 2200 Hennepin to 1942 Hennepin. (Jan. 13, 1912)

Ball’s Drug lasted just a little over four years at 2200 Hennepin. In January 1912, his business and Kallestad’s market were consumed by a ferocious fire that began when a can of denatured alcohol exploded in the drugstore, “igniting a considerable quantity of olive oil,” according to an account in the Minneapolis Tribune.

Ball placed his loss at $23,000, with only $17,000 covered by insurance. But he lost no time regrouping. The very next day, Ball ran an ad in the paper announcing that “The Ball Pharmacy” would henceforth serve patrons from new digs at Franklin and Hennepin Ave., home of the Franklin Pharmacy Co. which, the ad stated, “we also own.”

The Ball Pharmacy at 1942 Hennepin

The new Ball Pharmacy occupied the southwest ground floor of a 1910 three-story brick building on the corner of Franklin and Hennepin. (Until researching this article, I had no idea the building had been designed by noted architect Edwin H. Hewitt. For more on the architectural back story, see sidebar below).

The Ball store at 1942 Hennepin had a much smaller footprint than the later Burch Pharmacy, which over the years came to stretch across three adjoining buildings (legally described as 1936-1942 Hennepin Avenue).

In addition to the new Ball Pharmacy in the corner storefront, the building’s tenants included the Homan-Gerdes Grocery Store (1936 Hennepin, in recent decades the middle room of the Burch Pharmacy), which also owned the building. A small bakery had been folded into the grocery so that the business could “supply only its own retail trade,” noted Northwestern Miller).

At 1934 Hennepin (the longstanding Burch card shop and for many years, a neighborhood post office) was the Lowry Hill Fruit Company—a store that may have been more healthful than its ads, which ran to five-pound cans of locally made McKusick’s hard candy, “so delicate and true they seem like nature’s own.”

Upstairs were meeting rooms used by fraternal organizations and an elegant venue well-known at the time, Mrs. Noble’s Dancing Studio, owned by Helen S. Noble. An original building tenant, using the address 1938 Hennepin, the studio was part of Mrs. Noble’s Dancing School, which until at least 1915 also had a hall at 1217 Hennepin.

The Noble studio specialized in dance parties, with orchestras, for high school and college students; a 1911 Minnesota Daily ad touted Noble’s “beautiful new studio for fraternity and sorority parties.” Mrs. Noble also presided over dancing lessons (“social, aesthetic, and folk”; “all the newest dances taught, as well as the standard waltz and two-step”), lavishly decorated afternoon bridge parties, and fancy soirees attended by the city’s smart set.

MrsNobleDance_1914ad.jpg" alt="SpyTC: 1914 ad in Minneapolis Morning Tribune for Mrs. Noble's Dancing School.

Minneapolis Morning Tribune ad, 10/2/1914

Mrs. Noble’s business was a lasting one, going strong in the Burch building until at least 1937. Noble had started out in 1897 in the southeast Minneapolis Dinkytown neighborhood, hosting dance lessons and parties for University of Minnesota students and faculty, first in a studio in her home at 417 4th Ave. S.E. and later in a dance hall at 315 14th Avenue S.E. where she was next door to a print shop and directly above the University’s first textbook store.

That Dinkytown building, then referred to as “University Hall” in newspaper ads, is now the site of Annie’s Parlour and the Kitty Cat Club. Interesting footnotes: The building’s original bookstore was started in 1898 by student Halsey W. Wilson, who went on to become a noted New York publisher. The book space became Perine’s in 1905, a Dinkytown fixture until 1978.

SpyTC.com - Ball Pharmacy, Minneapolis, ad after January 1912 fire.

The Ball Pharmacy moves to 1942 Hennepin: The seed of Burch Pharmacy.

As Ball settled into his new space downstairs from Mrs. Noble, he may have felt great satisfaction at having so quickly risen from the ashes of fire. But it was clear that he couldn’t catch a break from vandals and thieves. Burglars repeatedly smashed his store windows and wrecked his locks to scoop up fountain pens, cigars, toilet articles, and other merchandise—in one case setting him back $1,000 ($23,000 today), according to news reports.

“It is believed that the burglars were drug fiends in search of dope,” observed Northwestern Druggist in fall 1915 recounting one of many burglaries at the Ball Pharmacy. To make matters worse, as the publication observed a couple of months later, thieves routinely made off with Ball’s shiny delivery bicycles “as fast as he can have them delivered” (“notwithstanding the fact that his pharmacy is surrounded by electric lights”).

1936-1942 Hennepin Avenue
SpyTwinCities - Burch Pharmacy architectural detail

Architectural detail on the 1910 E.H. Hewitt building at Franklin & Hennepin.

Architectural Back Story

The building that housed first Ball Drug and then Burch Pharmacy is a three-story brick structure legally known as 1936-1942 W. Hennepin Avenue, sited in an area platted as the Groveland Addition to Minneapolis. The building was put up in late 1910 by the Holman-Gerdes Grocery Co., with its grocery store occupying the 1936 address on the north end. City tax records erroneously list a 1913 construction date, but original building permits show that the new “3-story brick stores, offices, and [dance] hall” structure was in fact begun in mid-1910 and completed in January 1911. Brown-Zenz was the general contractor. The city listed the building among “Buildings Erected During 1910”; the laying of concrete floors for the “store, office, and hall” was noted by American Contractor in September 1910.

Notably, the building was designed by Edwin H. Hewitt, a celebrated Minneapolis architect—and onetime apprentice to Cass Gilbert—who embraced the turn-of-the-century “City Beautiful Movement” that promoted cityscapes of uplifting grandeur. Hewitt’s work, largely in partnership with Edwin Brown, includes local landmarks such as the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, and the 1932 Moderne-style Northwestern Bell (now Qwest) Building that was, for over two decades, the tallest building in Minneapolis.

Hewitt and Brown designed several Minneapolis buildings now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the 1920 Architects and Engineers Building at 1200 2nd Avenue S. and the Eugene Carpenter House on Mount Curve. Also of Hewitt-Brown provenance is the George Christian Mansion that houses the Hennepin History Museum.

Journal item noting the laying of the concrete floors at 1936-42 Hennepin in September 2010.

The American Contractor, 9/3/1910, noted the laying of the concrete floors for 1936-42 Hennepin. The 1910 construction date is confirmed by multiple city records. The address here for builder Holman-Gerdes is for its existing grocery blocks away.

Still, Ball seems to have taken it all in stride. He bought new bicycles in lots of half a dozen, and he regularly advertised his store in large newspaper ads touting the benefits of 35-cent Durham-Duplex razors and a wide variety of potions and antidotes for everything from baldness to kidney disease.

Soda fountains were only beginning to be fixtures in pharmacies, but corner drugstores were fast becoming an essential stable of neighborhood life—the place to stop in for headache pills, plasters for colds, tooth powder, cigars, boxes of chocolates, shaving brushes, and other sundries.

Like other pharmacies in the early 20th century, Ball’s was a “compounding” pharmacy where—there being yet no tablets or capsules engineered by Pfizer or GlaxoSmithKline —druggists made their own pills, powders, elixirs, and tinctures from plant extracts and other ingredients.

Remedies ruled, many of them “patent” or proprietary concoctions developed by pharmacists and, often, doctors living over the drugstores. Ads Burch ran with other local pharmacies highlighted the wonders of Dr. French’s quinsy tonsillitis cures; a “vibrator” ideal for everything from asthma to the intriguing sounding “locomotor ataxia”; and a “nerve vitalizer” called Kellogg’s Santone Wafers.

Other ads touted a product called FAMO promised “to make women’s hair grow luxuriously”; a potion called Proton that was guaranteed—in the pre-supermodel era—to “make you pleasingly plump”; and Vinol, a product said to invigorate “fagged-out women” and “tired working men.” A remedy called Nujol, “an internal lubricant for constipation,” was advertised, less than reassuringly, as a product of the Standard Oil Company.

More optimistically yet for a Minnesota shopkeeper, Ball equipped his drugstore “with the Gillespie Flyless Entrance and expects to have a store absolutely free from flies.”

Fatal Concoction

Whether he had any success at all in vanquishing flies from his store is unknown, but his resolute optimism couldn’t spare George Ball the scandal of a high-profile—and lethal—mistake.

In October 1920, a Hennepin County judge named J.H. Steele, 64, dropped dead after ingesting a poisonous hair removal compound he’d presumed to be salts prescribed by his doctor to prepare for x-ray examinations.

The compound came from, you guessed it, the Ball Pharmacy. The judge, a pal of Ball’s who lived nearby (1930 Girard), had presented the pharmacy with a scribbled and pocket-worn note that was misread by Ernest Baldwin, a clerk at the Ball Pharmacy.

Instead of the barium sulfate prescribed by Steele’s doctor, Baldwin asked Ball to hand him a bottle of barium sulfite for the judge—referring to a nonprescription but highly poisonous compound for external use only.

SpyTwinCities.com - Ball Pharmacy prescription slip, 1922

A Ball Pharmacy prescription slip, 1942 Hennepin, Sept. 1922. The prescribing physician lived right upstairs—not uncommon at the time.

The fatal consequences earned Ball a grilling by the superintendent of police and his pharmacy unwanted front-page publicity. Although the death was accepted as an accident, Ball’s embarrassment must have been acute as flags across the city were lowered to half mast in Steele’s memory—and as hundreds lined up for the funeral (at the nearby Scottish Rite cathedral, Dupont and Hennepin) for “the best loved man who ever sat upon the Hennepin County bench,” as the Minneapolis Morning Tribune had it.

But not even scandal could keep the ambitious Mr. Ball down for long.

The Ever Ambitious Mr. Ball Continue reading on next page»

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  12 Responses to “Vanishing Minneapolis: The End of Burch Pharmacy”

  1. Nice article……I just want to say that my father, is also a huge part of Burch’s history. He began his career there 60 years ago as a delivery person, worked his way through pharmacy school and then worked as a pharmacist/manager/and ultimately owner. He deserves credit and recognition for his 60 years of service there, in addition to many of the other long time, very dedicated employees.

  2. I have been compiling information on Burch Pharmacy for Hill and Lake Press – but mainly for the folks at Burch who have become very dear to me over the years. I am putting together a scrap book for them and was enthralled by the photos in your article about the Burch closing. The photo of Cal is something I would like to put in an article I am doing for Hill and Lake next month. I have seen Cal in that position a hundred times. Makes me want to cry – but it is a wonderful memory for many of us to be able to keep. I would of course give credit to Spy Twin Cities.

    Great article!!!!!

  3. Thanks so much for commenting. We’re especially honored and pleased that you wrote because of course your father must be Gene Johnson, the excellent “Mr. J.” who WAS Burch Pharmacy for so many years (and who continued to open the store nearly every morning until the bitter end). One of the true unsung heroes of city life, one of those truly indispensable, hard-working, caring, neighborly, and infinitely valuable people whose shops weave the fabric of neighborhoods and sustain generations.

    We know, too, that he links the earliest Burch Pharmacy (the Ben Cohen era) to the recent years (Cal Mathieson). Definitely a central part of “the rest of the story,” which we will in time be able to get posted here. We’ve also sat down recently to learn more from Gene himself.

  4. What a fascinating story! It reads like a well-paced thriller, complete with thugs, misfits, drugs, poisonings, suicide, mild debauchery, and all manner of mystery, mischief, and mayhem. In the end, though, it’s a wonderful tribute to a noble place that has now gone the way of etiquette and urbanity, card catalogs, Walnettos, and bowler hats. This is journalism and history writing at its best. Can’t wait to see what you take on next.

    RIP, Burch Pharmacy! We’ll miss you!

  5. Hello Spy Twin Cities. I just read your very nice comments about my Dad, and read them out loud to him this weekend. Thank you! I think they will bring him comfort during this sad time. I look forward to reading more of your article. Any chance we could get a copy of the photo of him with Burch’s in the background! dj

  6. Sorry, that last post should have had a question mark when I asked about getting a copy of the photo, or any others you might have of “Mister J”. We are more than happy to pay you for them……thanks

  7. Wonderful article- but waiting for the follow-up.

    Also- I posted a link to this article on the Facebook site “Old Minneapolis”, where I’m certain there will be many more comments, their seems to be quite a number of history buffs in this town, eager for as much information they can get. I’m one of them…

  8. I lived across the street from Dupont Elementary in 1969. An uncle visited and told me that when he belonged to the Masons, while in school at the U of M in the 40’s, that they’d met upstairs of the drug store. I was always aware of the large Mason Hall on Franklin and Dupont, also.

    When my daughter was still a student at Macalester, in the early 2000’s, she would attend Saturday, African Dance Classes led by Morris Johnson in what was also the famous Cassandra, the Middle Eastern Dancer’s Jawaahir studio, which I came to realize was probably the very room the Free-Masons had once met in.

    I used to purchase many a variety of things in that store when I lived in the neighborhood. Wonderful cards, address books, X-mas presents–games for my younger brothers … in that store. The window displays, indeed, were always eye-catching-interesting and lovely. What a shocker, last summer, to drive by and see the building gutted. Another lost Twin Cities story.

  9. The author should note, I believe it was in the mid-1970’s, a robber was walking out of the store and encountered a Minneapolis police officer responding on the silent alarm call. Gunfire was exchanged. The robber lost.

  10. Is there any chance that the author of this article can let us know when he/she might be able to write the rest of the story? I am one of those very interested in hearing it. Many thanks for what has been written so far. It has been very fascinating.

  11. Thanks for your comment–your interest is a welcome shot in the arm. Have loved researching the Burch story and have lots more material to share. Aiming to carve out time by fall.

  12. Regarding Carol’s comment, that school was Douglas Elementary School. Minneapolis never had a school by the name of Dupont and Douglas was the only school in the immediate area. But it was on Dupont Avenue (at Franklin. Now townhomes).

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