June 9, 2014

Futuristic Chattanooga Pharmacy Now Facing an Uncertain Future

The exterior of the pharmacy

photo by: Melissa Mortimer

The Brainerd branch of Moore & King Pharmacy was built in 1961. Architect Mario Bianculli designed the exterior of the building.

Upon first glance, there seems to be little in common between a local pharmacy, Art Moderne architecture, and drive-in windows. However, Moore & King Pharmacy in Chattanooga, Tenn., tells a compelling story of American entrepreneurial spirit, and in the wake of its closed doors, leaves behind a unique building.

In the early 1900s, J. Gilbert King and fellow pharmacist E. Fenton Moore purchased Voight & Thatcher Pharmacy -- which was established in 1878 -- and renamed it Moore & King Pharmacy.

Shortly after the founding of their pharmacy, Moore passed away, leaving the company to King. As decades of steady business selling prescription medications and hospital equipment went by, King's son Joseph, also a pharmacist, took control of the business.

Everything changed for Moore & King Pharmacy in 1961 when Joseph King built the company’s second branch on Brainerd Road, a few miles away from the original location. Unlike its three-story building in the downtown area -- which is now the location of Miller Plaza -- the second branch was a completely new architecture style for the area: Art Moderne.

The roof of the pharmacy

photo by: Melissa Mortimer

The roof of the building is composed of aluminum, steel, glass, and tile.

Designed by architect Mario Bianculli, the new structure was built to reflect the changing world of pharmacies and an example of Joseph King’s keen eye for seeing the future of his business. Charles King, grandson of Gilbert and current owner of the building, reflects on how his father came up with the idea for the new building.

“My dad was smart in that he could see the future of pharmacy,” says Charles, who is an architect. “He did that by taking tours of the United States. And I mean in a car to different pharmacies in different parts of America, which is where he came up with the idea of this store.”

The exterior was built with glass, aluminum, tile, and steel, with a planned interior color scheme.

“The front is almost entirely of glass with panels of ceramic tile on either side. The roof is of a folded steel plate. The work area inside will be completely visible to customers,” Bianculli told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1961.

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the building is its drive-in window, which provided a significant increase in convenience to its customers.

The drive-in window for the pharmacy

photo by: Melissa Mortimer

The drive-in window was a revolutionary concept for the pharmacy industry, spurred by the boom of the American automotive industry, and increased the convenience of Moore & King Pharmacy.

“My dad was one of the first people to use a drive-in window, and that was a direct result of him driving across America and seeing what was happening for the future,” Charles says.

Charles acquired ownership of the Brainerd structure in 1979 from his father, but Joseph continued to run the actual business until he sold the name to Erlanger Health System in 1996, according to a contemporary story in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Although Erlanger now owns “Moore & King Pharmacy,” the structure is independently on the market for sale or lease.

Charles remains concerned about the fate of the building, fearing that developers will use the land to construct another fast food chain or shopping mall.

The interior of the pharmacy

photo by: Melissa Mortimer

Moore & King Pharmacy not only sold medications, but hospital equipment and supplies, not to mention having one of the first "oxygen rooms" in Chattanooga where customers could refill their oxygen tanks.

Melissa Mortimer, historic preservation planner for the Southeast Tennessee Development District, came across the building when it went on the market, and she also expresses concern over the building’s future.

“The area of Brainerd, where it’s located, has become … really bad. A lot of it is fast food restaurants. It’s a very unique structure for the area and definitely the only one of that style. It’s significant architecturally and to a lot of the residents of that area,” Mortimer says.

Mortimer recognizes the challenges for preserving Moore & King Pharmacy’s former building.

“I don’t think the area is really looking to save a lot of structures, because there’s not a lot left,” Mortimer explains. “There are some old churches and school buildings, but a lot of what’s left in the area isn’t historic.”

Despite the uphill battle for preservation, Mortimer has hopes for what will happen to the building.

“I think it could be adaptive reuse for a lot of different commercial options, maybe a really cool retro coffee shop or a frozen yogurt shop. Something of that nature that you could play off the architecture and use that to bring in new life and opportunity for the building,” Mortimer says.

Charles also expresses hopes for the structure his father, who is now 96 years old, built decades ago.

“I would like to see a rebirth of energy and excitement, and I think there are opportunities for use of the building in a whole different light. Not necessarily as a pharmacy.”

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 33 places preserving Black history.

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