Business Commentaries Featured

Life on the Corner: The Roma Pharmacy

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.

The Old Apothecary Building

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.

25 Replies to “Life on the Corner: The Roma Pharmacy

  1. I used to get a tamarindo or an ice cream soda at the Roma when I could scrape up the coin.There was a small variety store with a juke box and of course a pinball machine on Prince near the Roma the owner was known as Charlie peg leg.

    1. I remember that variety store as well. Used to have a barrel with pickles in it. We would by spinning tops there and also chip in to buy what we called pimple balls to play stick ball in the park near the bath house up the street. You just triggered a great memory of another era. Thanks so much !!

  2. I visited the North End in December before a concert at the Garden. I took my friend on a tour of the of the neighborhood. We had tea in the former Burden’s drug store. It’s sad to see all the changes in the N.E. but, it was an incredible experience to be a part of it at one time. Thanks for the happy memories, Nick.

  3. Great article. I love the photo. I look at it and think that was just 10 short years before my father was born. My grandmother and great-grand parents were already on Endicott St. during this time. Thanks for sharing. I also hope that the demo can be done delicately to reveal what’s underneath.

    1. Yes. The building on the opposite corner was owned by the Leibovitz family and it may still be in their family.
      I’m relating all this from memory so any corrections are welcome.

  4. I remember when Roma pharmacy used to have leeches in the jars,,and basically the old time pharmacist were like drs,,if you had a bad stomach ache you were able to buy paragoric and the strong cough medicine terrine hydrate,, the pharmacy Mondellos used to seem the chamomile tea for upset stomachs and they had a lemony smelling body lotion called Italian balm it was so good smelling , sadly the days of pharmacists are long gone,, they were our friends,,confidants,, not like today

    1. The problem with paregoric was that it had opium in it’s ingredients and was used by the junkies in the NE .It quickly got out of hand and destroyed the NE as we knew it.

  5. So you would rather continue to see what is an eyesore than a new building that is safe and will be an owner occupied home to Freddie’s daughter and her husband and young son? I am confident that if asked, the owners will do what they can to preserve artifacts of historical significance. Of course you could buy the building from them and invest in its preservation if it is so important to you.

  6. Seriously, seriously……..what’s a matter with you. It’s an interesting story about the history of a building with people
    sharing their memories of same.
    Why do people like you always have to put a negative twist on everything.

  7. It’s a wonderful Historic story Nick you always outdo yourself! Some people don’t really know if they weren’t born here So rich in history! I’m sure Freddy and Peppi will get it and Maybe Mira and her husband and baby will make it happen before they tare the building down! (Treasures behind the walls)

    1. Thanks Corinne. We live in the most interesting neighborhood in Boston.
      My daughter, Jessica, did some further research for me and found a very funny story.
      The first apothecary of record at that location was Robert Fennelly who opened his pharmacy in 1797. Dr Fennelly was a prominent North Ender. He was an alderman, a representative to the General Court, a lieutenant in the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Co and a warden of Christ Church (Old North).
      “While warden, the minister and church members, male and female, met at his house. He had just obtained a demijohn of old wine to compound into medicine, and had unfortunately placed it beside a similar demijohn of ipecac in the shop below. His wife mistook the right vessel, and the whole church were physicked thoroughly before the mistake was discovered”.
      In other words they all got diarrhea.

  8. Thanks for this interesting story. I remember getting tamarindo sodas with my father, possibly at the Green Cross. Is there anywhere to get one today?

  9. Thanks Nick for another great story about the special neighborhood we grew up in ! Have you considered publishing one day these great insights into the North End as we knew it ? There is a building across the street from Roma that I recall had some kind of musical symbols on the metal on the upper levels. Has that been researched ?

  10. Nick, Thanks for a great story, as usual. We looked closely at the building last week and we believe the upper exterior is brick-looking asphalt shingles over wood. Hope the city archeologist keeps an eye on the building and what it can reveal and items to preserve, as you suggest.

    1. You’re right, Bob. When the Jewish and Italian immigrants flooded into Boston the city was desperate to find housing for them. The leafy residential neighborhoods were full so the quasi industrial North and West Ends were chosen by default. The old wooden Colonial buildings were fire traps so so real estate speculators cloaked them in brick to pacify the fire inspectors. Colonial Boston still exists hidden under the brick facades of many North End tenements.

  11. It saddens me that I took over five decades to become a quasei member of the NorrthEnd. I am a townie, you know, one of them kids from accross the Charlestown bridge. We were forbidden to venture into the North End by adults and parents, out of fear the monsters would kill us,or worse, whatever worse was, who knew. In order to get into Boston to sell the afternoon and Sunday newspapers I had to take a street car or bus or the. EL,or ride my bike over the low bridge out of city square. I did that from nineteen forty nine until nineteen fifty six. Now I can be found every Sunday morning at seven thirty or so at the bocce courts, I haven’t missed a Sunday game since September of twenty fifteen. I drive in over a hundred miles and not once have I been threatened with death, or worse Well there was a time or three when my bocce team lost games because of me, or when one of my jokes bombed.

  12. Yes, I too remember Burdens and having an ice cold Tamarindo! And it was wonderful to hear my mother barter with the Jewish merchants in Yiddish, Claymans, Jacks, Sheldons. Didn’t understand but knew they were friends also. It’s wonderful to read your stories.

  13. Tearing down that building is going to be sa nightmare for people on Prince snd Salem Sts.
    There are going to be tats everywhere. That building was neglected by the landlords and
    Now instead of fixing it they want to just tear it down and start anew. Great…. they dint live here so they wont see a problem. If yhis building is historical it should be protected not demolished.

Comments are closed.