Wandering down the mysterious west-end of Water Street, I often stumbled on the seemingly-never-open James J. O’Mara Pharmacy Museum. Located right before the overpass of Pitts Memorial Drive, this well-maintained Art Deco gray building with periwinkle blue accents and large dark “APOTHECARY HALL” scripture stands out in this end of town. So, what’s the deal?
This building now serves two purposes: the museum, located in the one front room where the drug store would have greeted customers and a basement reserved to store the many more artifacts which they do not have the room to display, and the Newfoundland and Labrador Pharmaceutical Board (NLPB), occupies the upper floors.
Peter O’Mara constructed the building on 488 Water Street in 1922 after outgrowing the rented pharmacy right next-door. When walking through the front room, between two large shop-windows displaying some of the many odd and old pharmaceutical products, it is like entering a time-capsule. First to catch the eye is the oak shelving and counter, constructed in England in 1879 and belonged to M. Connors Limited Wholesale and Retail Druggists, where The Adelaide Oyster House now resides.
Difficult to know where to look next, I was thankfully given a tour by retired pharmacist and ex-Registrar of the NLPB, Donald Rowe. No matter if I asked him to decipher the cryptic writing on the hundreds of ingredients and chemicals in glass bottles aligned neatly on the oak shelves, or doctor’s prescription recipes from the early 20th century glued into a book a foot thick, Rowe explained with enthusiasm, anecdotes, and ease, as though he had been there for the entire century the building stood there.
Rowe pointed out the ceiling, which are embossed tin squares painted over, which, to the modern person would just looks like molded plaster, a money-box that used to be located in the basement that would dispense fuel to the gas lamps when you drop a coin in it, theatrical makeup that O’Mara assumedly used to provide for local thespians, and patented products that ranged from dangerous (products containing 25% DDT, morphine, etc.), familiar (Vick’s, Altoids) and odd (cigarettes that relieve asthma).
Another stunning feature are the “show globes” in the windows. “The same as barber poles on barber shops, they were typical for all drug stores,” Rowe explained. “In fact, there was a man visiting from Washington State and said that in Washington State there is still a law that only a licensed pharmacy can have these globes in their windows.” These are beautifully ornate egg-shaped globe hanging from the beak of a golden eagle, both located in opposite ends of the front of the store.
Rowe also demonstrated how they would have prepared various pills for their clients, which were all mixed and prepared in store at the customer’s request.
The museum is named after James J. O’Mara, the NLPB Registrar in the 70s, who had a passion for collecting old pharmaceutical memorabilia and convinced the board to build this museum. Dowe estimates that about a third of the items or more featured were collected by home, and many others were donated directly to the museum.
In my biased opinion, I think this museum is great. It’s free, interesting, and a nostalgic look back at when Water Street was at its peak and booming with businesses (until the Avalon Mall was built in 1967). And so the question remains: why do so little people know it exists and so few have been?
In the hour and a half that I was there, there was no other tourist but me. The museum is only open for two months a year, July and August, with the help of student employees, and freely open thanks to donations from the public and grants for summer employment. Zachary Layman, a CONA architecture student, and Julia Naterer, entering high school next year are this year’s guides.
Visitors consist mostly of tourists from cruise ships, retired pharmacists, and teachers, and Layman and Naterer estimate that most visitors are about 40 years old or more. Their most enthusiastic visitors are usually from retirement homes who enjoy reminiscing about old commercialized products.
Both students think the place important and interesting, but are unsure about it’s future due to the demographic it attracts. “As the new generation comes, I think the interest will drop a lot,” Layman said. Naterer agreed and added, “Most of the people who come here recognize the stuff, but for the younger kids, when they come in, they aren’t going to recognize anything.”
The James J. O’Mara Museum doesn’t have the striking standoutishness of The Rooms, nor does it have the passing traffic that the Johnson GEO CENTRE has, but hopefully the new developments on the west end of Water Street, such as Biped Sports, Rock Paper Flowers, and various antique shops, will attract more walk-ins and win over some curious hearts.
Come visit the James J. O’Mara Pharmacy Museum open Monday-Friday from 10-4.
Article By Ema Noëlla Kibirkstis