On September 2, 1938, the Walgreen Drug Co. of Chicago opened its first store in New Orleans at 900 Canal St. After securing a 50-year lease, they first had to tear down the Beer Building, which was built in the 1800s and had been used for decades as rentable office and retail space, including a haberdashery, an entomological store and a “bear fur” store.
The new Walgreen store was designed by A. Epstein of Chicago; local company Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth were associate architects. The new building was the first new construction on Canal Street since the Saenger Theater in 1927.
The three-story structure was a distinctive Art Deco Streamline Modern design with a curved corner in front. The first floor was dedicated to retail sales and a 100-foot-long soda fountain bar with built-in seating, while the second floor mezzanine housed an oval-shaped restaurant which overlooked the first floor and the street. The third floor contained storage space and a master kitchen. Fixtures throughout the store were comprised of bleached oak, coral leather and stainless metal.
The original 50-year-lease was extended to 60 years and came up for renewal in 1997. At that time, the company requested to tear down two adjacent buildings and add on to their store, claiming the business was too small to continue without the additional space. These buildings, fronting Canal Street, housed small theaters for much of their history, but both had undergone multiple non-historic alterations over the years. While there was some resistance to this plan, many were enthusiastic at the attempt to help boost an economically struggling downtown area.
The petition was granted, and Walgreen’s was able to more than double its store size. The Art Deco design of the expansion, renovation of the original store, and restoration of the neon signage cost $5 million and earned them a 2002 HDLC award for beautifying the CBD.