Northeastern’s Historic Buildings

Like many universities, or indeed many large institutions, Northeastern’s history is seeped in the stories of numerous property acquisitions.

Some of those, of course, have been quite scandalous. Northeastern’s Speare Hall, for example, lies on Huntington Avenue between the Boston Symphony and the Museum of Fine Arts – on land which was once housed a magnificent “temple of music”; Boston’s original Opera House.

Opened in 1909, the glory of this opera house was unfortunately short-lived. Its original opera company went bankrupt by 1915. Various theater companies used the space, but the building fell into disrepair.

In 1957, the property was purchased by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, who sold it to Northeastern a week later. It’s unclear to me exactly how transparent this deal was. In a 2009 story, the Boston Globe indicated that the building really was far past repair, and mentions off-handedly that a Northeastern building now sits there.

But in a 2011 piece from Northeastern’s student newspaper, Emeritus Professor Wilfred Holton indicates a different story:

“It was kind of sneaky how they did it,” said Holton. ”Northeastern said they had no interest in the building. Then the developers bought it and it looked like Northeastern had a deal with them because within a week, the university bought it from them. But the university got away with it, obviously.”

Despite the sale, Boston’s cultural community tried to save the building, but “the condition of the building required it to be demolished and rebuilt.”

While I imagine some are skeptical of the necessity of this demolition, Northeastern’s 1976 Master Plan is clear that the Boston Opera House “had been condemned as
unsafe prior to acquisition by Northeastern.”

Apparently a brick from the original building is preserved in the university archives.

What started me on this story, though, was the history of Northeastern’s Holmes’ Hall. Purchased in 1961 and dedicated in 1979, four Northeastern buildings – Lake Hall, Meserve Hall, Nightingale Hall, and Holmes Hall – once belonged to United Drug Company.

United Drug Company (UCD) was the corporate force behind the retail chain of Rexall Drug Stores. Founded in 1903 by Louis Kroh Liggett, the Boston-based company once boasted “as many as 12,000 drug stores across the United States.”

Incidentally, Liggett apparently got his start selling “Vinol” made from wine and cod livers. It’s unclear to me exactly what ailment this tonic was intended to address.

Northeastern’s archives – which house an odd assortment of Rexall remedies – indicates that “in the 1930s, UDC built six buildings on its Boston campus that housed its corporate offices and manufacturing and research facilities.” While many of these buildings were eventually demolished, Northeastern renovated one UDC building – splitting it into the four Northeastern buildings which exist today.

Now, somebody had told me that one of these buildings, Holmes Hall, used to be a rubber factory – a fact I was beginning to doubt as I read about the history of United Drug Company.

But then I ran across this tidbit. After the initial construction of “a small factory” in Boston, “A candy making department was the next installation, followed by one for perfumery in 1905. Stationery and fountain supplies were added in 1910, rubber goods in 1912, brushes in 1913 and hospital items in 1919.”

So I guess United Drug Company had a rather diverse manufacturing portfolio.

John N. Ingham’s Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders, Volume 2 – the book you never knew you needed – confirms this history, noting that “United’s first product was a dyspepsia tablet, but it soon was bringing out a wide variety of patent medicines, along with spices, toilet soap, candy, and rubber goods.”

Furthermore, optically scanned versions of various trademark and patent applications can be found online.

But what I really want to know is how the still-standing building maps onto UDC’s original operation.

Some indications of this can be found in a 1998 Northeastern publication:

Evidence of the United Drug Company survives today. Fired terra-cotta shields at the tops of the beveled corners at Greenleaf Street carry the lettering “UD Co.” On the fifth floor of Lake Hall, the Math Department enjoys the dark wood paneling and marble fireplace of United Drug’s president’s office. Every floor in the building carries a large, walk-in safe, perhaps for protecting secret product formulas. And over the door on the Leon Street end of today’s Ryder Building is a carved sign: United Drug Company Department of Research and Technology.

And one more fun fact revealed by that document:

In 1961, Northeastern purchased a seven-acre parcel of land from the United Realty Company. The entire, red-brick industrial complex occupying the site, once owned by the United Drug Company, was to be razed to make way for a sports facility. After reducing three blocks of buildings facing Forsyth Street to rubble, however, the demolition crew was ordered to stop. The University had grown so rapidly that the old buildings now had to be salvaged for offices and laboratories.”

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