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History Happenings: Century-old May's Drug building headed for wrecking ball

This 1957 photo shows May’s Drug at 215 Second St. SE in downtown Cedar Rapids. (The History Center)

Two neighboring downtown Cedar Rapids buildings are slated for demolition in the 200 block of Second Street SE.

The first is a one-story structure at 209-211 Second St. SE built in 1967. For many years, it had two storefronts — the Little King restaurant (“Where a Sandwich is a Complete Meal”); and Baker’s Shoe and then Ford’s Shoe in the 1970s and 1980s.

Of more historic interest is the pending demolition of the two-story structure at 213-215-217 Second St. SE, remembered as the longtime location of the first May’s Drug in Cedar Rapids.

The May’s Drug building goes back to 1902 when it was initially known as the New O’Hara Building, built by William H. O’Hara as a business investment. O’Hara was a railroad contractor who invested in new residential and commercial buildings in Cedar Rapids.

This New O’Hara Building had three storefronts on its first floor. The first occupants in 1903 included the 20th Century House novelty store and C. Ilten’s Queen meat market. The building also offered office and storage space on the second floor accessible by a staircase going up from the sidewalk.

Many notable Cedar Rapids businesses began within this building between 1903 and 1930. They included the Charles E. Fawcett and J.B. Terry companies. Both were electrical supply companies that later built their own buildings in other parts of the downtown.

The Emerson-Hiltbrunner Music store began here. Known later as just Hiltbrunner’s, the popular music shop moved to 221-223 First St. SE along the river in 1931 and 30 years later moved to 116 Second St. SE, now home of the Blue Strawberry coffee shop.

The building also housed the Paris Academy of Beauty and Culture, which later moved to the 300 block of Second Avenue SE and evolved into the Capri Cosmetology College.

MAY’S DRUG

It was in 1931 that the May Drug Co. opened in the storefront formerly occupied by Hiltbrunner’s at 215 Second St. SE. The little drugstore grew quickly in the 1930s and doubled in size by 1935.

It featured the May’s Tea Room and lunch counter where one could eat an entire Christmas dinner for 49 cents in 1937. May’s was known for selling ice cream in a one quart “brick.”

The increasing popularity of May’s was helped along by its slogans — “The original cut rate drug store” and “Where spending is saving.”

May’s Drug grew so quickly that it occupied the entire two-story O’Hara Building within a few years. By 1954, the entire first floor was used for May’s retail area, including an lunch counter that had expanded in the 1940s.

The second floor became storage, with shelves of stock. The basement had more storage as well as the kitchen that would send food orders up to the first-floor lunch counter via a small dumbwaiter.

In the 1950s and 60s, May’s Drug opened other stores in Cedar Rapids and Marion but continued to upgrade and modernize the flagship downtown store several times.

In 1967, an old three-story building next door at 209-211 Second St. SE was being demolished. The 1880 structure also had been built had been built by the O’Hara family. It shared a brick support wall with the newer O’Hara building. The demolition caused extensive facade damage to the next-door O’Hara/May’s Drug building, which had to close to repair the damage. Upon reopening, the exterior’s front second level was covered in bright red metal. A new “May’s Drug” sign was installed over the metal.

REVCO & BOOK STORE

After nearly 50 years with the same name in the same location, May’s Drug became Revco in 1980.

Revco Drug continued to operate in the building until 1990, when it closed. For much of the 1990s, many might remember the old May’s Drug space housing a large used bookstore known as Read Books. At the time of the Flood of 2008, the first floor had been converted to a nightclub called Legends, associated with University of Iowa basketball star Roy Marble.

Since the flood, the building has stood virtually unused.

DEMOLITION AHEAD

Earlier this month, United Fire Group, current owners of the building, had the 50-year-old red metal siding removed, revealing the damage that occurred in the 1967 next-door demolition. It was far more extensive than expected, with more than 75 percent of the building’s original decorative brick facade destroyed and replaced by cinder blocks. The revelation led to the decision to demolish the 115-year-old structure.

Plans are in place to document, with photographs, the few remaining elements of the May’s Drug history in the old storage areas on the second floor. Photos will be taken of penciled messages left on the second-floor walls by former May’s employees. They include statements from employees about to leave for World War II service in the early 1940s and later messages from the 1950s about everything from boxing cigarettes to descriptions of Killer, the company cat who helped keep mice out of the storage areas.

Comments? Questions? Contact Mark Stoffer Hunter at mark@historycenter.org

Stoffer Hunter, a research historian for The History Center in Cedar Rapids, will write this column periodically. (Time Machine returns to this space next Sunday). A lifelong resident of the Cedar Rapids area, Stoffer Hunter has documented changes within the city for 35 years, beginning when he was 12. A graduate of Regis High School, Stoffer Hunter has a degree in art history, with an emphasis on architectural history, from the University of Iowa. The co-author of several Cedar Rapids history books, he has led local history tours for more than 25 years.