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Old Apothecary Back in Business

The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum and Gift Shop reopened on Nov. 11 after a two-year renovation, more than a year behind schedule.
The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum and Gift Shop reopened on Nov. 11 after a two-year renovation, more than a year behind schedule. (Photos By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006

Robert E. Lee bought paint and medicine there. President James Monroe was a regular customer. Martha Washington purchased castor oil, to relieve her aching intestines, one month before her death in 1802.

The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum and Gift Shop in Old Town is a rich repository of Alexandria history. The apothecary was once the oldest continuously operating pharmacy in the United States, a working drugstore for 141 years before reopening as a museum in 1939.

But in recent years, the two Federal-style rowhouse buildings near King and Fairfax streets had begun to fall apart. Stairs were decrepit and dangerous, and there was no fire alarm or sprinkler system, hot water or central air conditioning.

"It had survived that way for 200 years by the grace of God," said Al Cox, an architect in the city's Code Enforcement Bureau.

A long-needed renovation began in 2004. And after a challenging set of upgrades, which included installing new piping and providing handicap access, the museum resumed operating last week with a grand reopening. The event was more than a year behind schedule, but local preservationists couldn't be happier.

"There are so many stories within its walls and within its collections," said Jim Mackay, acting director of the Office of Historic Alexandria. Mackay's department became the museum's operator last month after a preservation group donated it to the city.

"The apothecary was one of those places that everyone went to, like taverns in the 18th century,'' Mackay said. "They were just great crossroads of society."

Lee was among those who visited the apothecary. The future Confederate general was standing at the counter of the Alexandria apothecary in 1859 when he received orders to crush the raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry that was led by the abolitionist John Brown. Since the Civil War would not start for two years, Lee was still a U.S. Army general.

At the time, Lee was renovating his home in Arlington and was likely to have been buying paint and other household supplies at the store, said Sarah Becker, the museum's former executive director and now its curator emeritus. In addition to making, wholesaling and retailing drugs, the apothecary sold goods as varied as farming equipment, seeds and chocolate. Lee was also known to buy cod-liver oil and Epsom salts.

George and Martha Washington often had medicine from the apothecary delivered to Mount Vernon, though it's doubtful that they ever went there in person.

"The orders came up the Potomac by riverboat," Becker said.

The most famous order was Martha's 1802 purchase of castor oil, written in what historians say was her last recorded note. The museum acquired the original paper in 1997. It is kept in a bank safe-deposit box in Alexandria, but a reproduction will be displayed in the museum.


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