There’s been a lot of discussion about the building at the corner of Prince and Salem Streets which is owned by Joe and Fred Giangregorio. The building is slated to be demolished and replaced with an attractive, modern apartment building. North Enders refer to it as the “Postale” building because the latest tenant was a popular mail box company, but the building has a much more interesting history than that. For over two hundred years the building illustrated in this photo housed an apothecary shop. In fact, it could have been the oldest continually operating pharmacy in Boston or even the Colonies.
When I was a child back in the 1950’s the shop was the Roma Pharmacy and it was owned by an amiable, elderly man with the most wonderful name, Amadeo Amodeo. Mr. Amodeo had a soda fountain where he sold ice cream, frappes, antacids like Brioschi and a North End favorite, tamarindo soda.
The North End at that time had several pharmacies. On Hanover Street there was Burden’s, Barone’s, Macaluso’s where the Conah Store is and Mondello’s at the corner of Hanover and Richmond Streets. Mondello’s was what Italians call an ometopatica, a store that sold herbs and other natural remedies. They had a large bin of licorice roots which we used to buy and chew on to get a little buzz. Barone’s drug store was owned by old man Barone, a grumpy guy with with a bald head on top of which was a huge sebaceous cyst. A group of us kids would go into the store and taunt him singing; “Barone with a pimple on his bal-dee.” He’d then chase us out cursing us in Italian.
Farther down Hanover Street was the Farmacia Croce Verde, the much loved Green Cross drug store which was owned by Amadeo’s brother Antonio Amodeo. There were at least two other drug stores, one at the corner of Endicott and Thacher Streets and a small one in Bartlett Place. I don’t recall their names and I’m hoping some readers can help refresh my memory. There was a rumor that the pharmacist in the Bartlett Place pharmacy was arrested and jailed for performing abortions which were illegal at that time.
When Joe and Fred Giangregorio graduated from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy in the 1960’s they bought the Roma Pharmacy from Mr. Amodeo and operated it for several years. When Antonio Amodeo put the Green Cross up for sale they bought it as well and moved their business to Hanover Street where they remained for the next fifty years. Their decision to retire this year was met with a mixture of sadness and joy. We already miss Joe, Fred, Rachele and Dominick but we are deeply appreciative for the wonderful care and service they gave to the North End and Waterfront communities.
While doing renovations to the old Roma Pharmacy, Joe and Fred removed some walls and found dates from the 1780’s written on the timbers. That places the building from at least the time of the Revolutionary War. Imagine Sam Adams, Paul Revere and even John Hancock could have been customers of the apothecary and bought botanical potions, unguents and leeches there.
The photo accompanying this article dates from about 1912. The flags in the window look like they have forty-seven stars which would place it at that time. Before World War I that section of the North End was largely Jewish and there is a Jewish tailor advertising on the first floor. Diagonally across the street was the Green Front grocery store (The Greenie) started by Yetta Rabinowitz (Rabb) which would ultimately become the Stop & Shop chain of supermarkets. I don’t know why the flags are in the window. Perhaps it’s the Fourth of July or maybe Mr. Tilton, the proprietor, just wanted to emphasize his Yankee roots. Of course, the most noticeable feature in the photo is the bust of the Greco-Roman god Aesculapius, the son of Apollo and the god of medicine. That indicates the building was purpose built to be an apothecary shop and possibly a physicians office.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this historic building is that it still exists under the brick façade. Apparently, when the old wooden building was renovated to house the influx of Italian immigrants, probably in the 1920’s, the wooden structure wasn’t razed but was encased in brick to conform to the fire codes at that time. I suspect the same is true for many other North End tenement buildings. Until the late 19th and even into the 20th century the North End had many wooden tenement buildings. The Irish who settled in the North End before the Civil War lived in wooden shacks under wretched conditions.The tremendous influx of Jews and Italians in the 1880”s and 90”s created an opportunity for landlords to profit from housing these immigrants in crowded tenement units. Encasing sound wooden buildings in brick satisfied municipal concerns about fires spreading from building to building and was much less expensive than demolishing them and building anew.
When the apothecary building is demolished I hope the city’s archeologists will have an opportunity to examine it once the brick sheathing is removed. This may be one of the last eighteenth century buildings left in Boston and it could be a treasure trove of Colonial artifacts. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the bust of Aesculapius was still there hidden for a hundred years under the brick facade. I would even suggest that the City give Joe and Fred a financial grant to help them demolish the building in an archeologically sensitive way. This is a very special and unique piece of North End history.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.