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Saturday, September 24, 2016

New exhibit to pay tribute to memories of a Highland Park drug store

Former Highland Park bank turned drug store. Photo courtesy Charles Fisher

Photo by Martha Benedict

By Nicole Possert

In the 1920s, pharmacist George A. Simmons took over a former bank building on what is now Figueroa Street and opened a drug store that would serve the neighborhoods for decades.  The drug store, now a Chase bank branch, closed long ago.  But a new version of  Simmons’ shop will soon rise at the Heritage Square Museum  in Montecito Heights to house an exhibit dedicated to the classic drug store.  For the first time in its 42-year history, Heritage Square Museum broke ground for the construction of the new building, the Colonial Drug Store, in a ceremony with board, staff, community leaders and the Simmons family who were the impetus for this project.

The new construction was necessary to accommodate a large and unique donation of the drug store interior given by the Simmons family to Heritage Square, which is home to numerous old buildings rescued from other parts of Los Angeles.  The project was developed in memory of Simmons, who was a neighborhood pharmacist for more than 60 years.

“Our family and Heritage Square are honoring the memory of my grandpa George, my father Sidney, who is one of the oldest still-practicing pharmacists in California, and the importance of the neighborhood pharmacy as a vital and core community institution,” said Phil Simmons who represented the family and is the project manager.

The new building will be built next to the Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church in an area of the museum grounds currently not accessible to the public.  Its architectural design is intended to replicate or approximate the exterior of the drug store’s original Highland Park location at 5700 Pasadena Avenue (now N. Figueroa Street).

According to a project press release:

“Once completed, the building and historic interior exhibit will be known as Colonial Drug, George A. Simmons, Proprietor.  Serving as a historical record of the pharmaceutical industry, the new building and exhibit will provide an interactive experience, illustrating the evolution of the neighborhood drugstore. Moreover, it will become an integral part of Heritage Square Museum, and will recall the appearance, character, function and activities of a typical corner pharmacy.

The interiors will feature cabinetry, a soda machine and bar, ephemera, and other items that are authentic to a drug store originally located in Highland Park. It will also feature inventory from the Colonial Drug Collection, one of Southern California’s most unique and extensive selections of old proprietaries, sundries, botanicals, and cosmetics. Each item includes the original labeling, and a great many of these products cannot be found anywhere else.”

Construction will take approximately 8 months, with the design challenge of cost effectively recreating a typical 1920’s-era drug store on the inside but an older exterior to match the period of the 1900’s.  Why two architectural styles?  “The Simmons opened the pharmacy in the old bank, so the project will capture the design styles of two time periods,” remarked Basil Behrman, President/CEO of Construction Headquarters, Inc., serving as the general contractor for the project.

Highland Park’s Colonial Drug Company

In the 1920s, the Colonial Drug Company moved into a building originally built for the first bank in Highland Park.  The Highland Park Bank opened in 1906 with a new building designed by architect Thornton Fitzhugh (he also designed the Pacific Electric Building in downtown L.A.).  “In 1923, the bank merged with Security Trust & Savings and moved one block south to a new larger building,“ said Charles Fisher, a local historian and board member of the Highland Park Heritage Trust.

Located at the center of the commercial district for downtown Highland Park, the Colonial Drug Company operated as a central and critical place for the growing community for many years keeping the original bank design.  Today, the building still exists but is no longer recognizable with major remodeling that began in the 1950s when it became Home Savings.  Today one will recognize it as a local branch for Chase bank.

“Heritage Square Museum is bringing back what was taken awhile ago in Highland Park,” said Jessica Maria Alicia Covarrubias, staff member at Heritage Square Museum.

Simmons Family Pharmacy Obsession

Sydney Simmons

While George Simmons was a practicing pharmacist, he also accumulated a vast amount of items related to this drug store and pharmacy industry.  The collection was stored in the basement of the family’s Highland Park home.  His two sons, Sidney and Frederick, each played their role in making this project a reality.

“It was Fred’s idea to create this project and donate our father’s collection to Heritage Square.  My role was to do all the work to move and catalogue everything,” said Sidney Simmons, who at 89-years-old, sparkled with enthusiasm that construction was finally beginning.

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  1. What a boon for the future schoolchildren and all medical students who will be able to visit the past and learn some hands on history of the soda fountain and drugstore, an American icon in its vanishing stages.

  2. This is very cool.

  3. A wonderful memorial to uncle George. Congratulations to the Simmons family for this great accomplishment.

  4. This vision of creating a Southern California Pharmacy Museum has been an obsession of its primary creator, Sidney Simmons. Pharmacist Simmons conceived this idea years ago and persevered through years of bureaucratic stubbornness, frustration and indifference to bring this fabulous dream to fruition. I have know Sidney Simmons for over 50 years. He is one of the best and most innovative pharmacists ever to practice the profession. He was always, and still is taking on challenges and tracking new territory in this noble profession. He would never “give up” on any of his endeavors. Sid-I applaud your achievement.

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