Monday, October 30, 2017

American Pharmaceutical Association Headquarters - An Unassuming Name for an Impressive Building

This past Saturday was my Father-in-Law's Yahrzeit (Z"L), and in his memory Shira and I took a walk down to the American Pharmaceutical Association (APhA) headquarters building. My Father-in-Law was a pharmacist, so it was an obvious destination. But even without this connection, the building is worth your time.

First of all, the building is situated opposite the Lincoln Memorial, and lives on Constitution avenue. This is prime real estate, to say the least. To the credit of the APhA, back in the 1930's, they didn't skimp on construction. The building was designed by John Russell Pope, who's also responsible for the Jefferson Memorial, National Gallery of Art, National Archives among other projects. As you approach the building, details fill in that you'd otherwise miss by just casually walking by.

As is typical with DC sites, the location has an apocryphal story to accompany it. In this case, the legend goes that the original purpose of the building was to serve as Lincoln's tomb. Like all good stories, there's a shred of truth to it:

[Pope's] first major museum commission in 1907 was to design a memorial for Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky, to enshrine Lincoln’s original log cabin. Pope’s 1907 design proved too expensive to build, and he was forced to create a less expensive structure that stands today at Lincoln’s Farm. Since it was a common practice for architects to recycle unused designs, Pope submitted his design as the plan for the American Institute of Pharmacy.

While government records clearly show the origin of the APhA building design, nary a word is said about it in any APhA publications of the day; some said that pharmacy leaders of the period felt it was beneath the dignity of pharmacy to reveal that the design was not created expressly for APhA. However, it appears that the history of the building’s design stirred a myth perpetuated for decades by taxicab drivers and tour guides in the nation’s capital. They told visitors that the American Institute of Pharmacy was originally built for Lincoln’s tomb; the creators of the myth apparently misunderstood that it was to have been a memorial for Lincoln’s birth, not Lincoln’s death. Taxicab drivers subsequently called the American Institute of Pharmacy the tomb of "the unknown pharmacist."

The building is supposed to contain a Botanical garden on the West side which features medicinal plants. We did find a pleasant area to sit on the West side, and there were plants there, though there was no indication that the plants growing there were medicinal.

My favorite feature of the building, though, is the flag poll. Seen from a distance, it looks like any old flag poll you'd see in front of any old DC building:

Upon closer inspection, you see that the flag pole honors pharmacists that served in US wars:

Featured on the flagpole are soldiers, various pieces of pharmaceutical equipment, and various chemical formula. A bit of Googling tells me that the formula in the top left hand corner of the photo below is most likely (C2H5)2O, or Diethyl Ether, which was historically used as a general anesthetic. I sure would have enjoyed quizzing my Father-in-Law on the various compounds, and given his Pharmacy and Chemistry Teacher background, I'm sure he'd ace them all.

What I love about this flag pole isn't just the juxtaposition of science and history. It's that it stands there, ready to be discovered by any passer by with just a bit of curiosity. Such is the joy of living near DC.

As for next year, maybe we'll make a pilgrimage to the building next door. That one should be just as appropriate.

Next time you find yourself visiting the Lincoln Memorial, take a few minutes to walk across the street and see an easy to miss gem.

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