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City Acquires Apothecary Museum

After a two-year renovation, the apothecary shop is finally ready to open in November.

It’s official — the city now owns the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop. After a 10-month delay involving the installation of a fire-suppression system, the nonprofit organization that formerly owned the museum officially transferred the deed to the city of Alexandria last week in the city attorney’s office. As a result, the city government is now in possession of one of the oldest pharmaceutical archives in the United States as well as the architecturally significant building that housed it continuously for 141 years. City officials hope to open the museum on Nov. 11.

“We felt that we didn’t have the resources to maintain the archives and develop programs,” said Harry Hart, former president of the museum board of trustees. “It’s an economy of scale because the city already operates a number of historic properties and they’ve already got the expertise to operate something like this.”

The apothecary shop was originally established in 1792, and it was a fixture on South Royal Street until the Great Depression forced its doors shut in 1933. The extensive records date back to Alexandria’s earliest days, including such figures as President George Washington and Alexandria Gazette editor Edgar Snowden. The museum’s archive includes more than 8,000 objects including medial ware, fixtures and furnishings that were used at the shop.

“The collection is considered to be one of the most important historic pharmaceutical collections in the United States,” wrote City Manager Jim Hartmann in his recommendation to accept the gift. “Since the city operates and maintains museums, and since the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop Museum is a unique asset which needs to be kept viable and open to the public, the Museum Board has felt that the city was in the best position to make sure the museum remained viable.”

The process that led to the city’s acquisition began in 1995 when Sarah Becker became executive director of the museum. She still remembers her first visit to the decaying building, which was filled with broken furniture and bird droppings. When members of the board approached her for advice about what to do with the aging landmark, she was faced with an important decision.

“I took this with a save-it-or-sell-it philosophy,” Becker said. “And then I realized that this had to be a city-owned property.”

A NATIVE OF EVANSVILLE, IND., Becker moved to Alexandria in 1987 to take a position as a policy analyst at the World Bank. She received a bachelor’s degree in political economics from Sweet Briar College and a master’s degree in economics from the London School of Economics. In the early 1990s, she started an Alexandria-based consulting business that attracted the attention of the museum’s board of directors.

“My reputation is for turning around troubled organizations,” said Becker, who is a former consultant for the Smithsonian Institution. “The apothecary became important to me because I live here.”

She served as director from 1995 to 2001, when she took a less involved role as “director emeritus” — a title she will keep now that the city has taken control of the museum. Guiding the renovation has been a labor of love for her, and she speaks with great passion about the potential of the collection and the possibilities of adding a new history museum in the heart of Old Town’s tourist district. Now that the transfer has been completed, she feels a sense of accomplishment and vindication.

“I had to convince people that this was more than old bottles,” Becker said. “Ultimately, I think this is the most important of the city’s historic properties because this is the one that can interpret all of the others.”

The museum’s signal importance in the history of the city is at the heart of Becker’s love for the building and its archives. She said that records at the apothecary help reveal important aspects of life at Mount Vernon or Woodlawn Plantation, both of which ordered goods from the shop. And she considers the shop’s first owner as a fascinating case study in integrity and perseverance.

“In terms of marketing the museum, I could not have asked for a better pitch man than Edward Stabler,” Becker said. “He was a truly modern man.”

STABLER WAS A TRENDSETTER, breaking new ground in medical care and civil rights. As a 17-year-old apprentice in an apothecary shop in Pennsylvania, he was exposed to the abolitionist movement. When he moved to Virginia a few years later to start his own shop, Stabler became active in Alexandria’s nascent abolitionist movement. For the remainder of his life, Stabler opposed the institution of slavery — a position that wasn’t easy in Virginia, where slaves were key to the economic system that had developed during the colonial period.

“Edward Stabler was a fascinating man to get to know,” Becker said. “He was an avowed abolitionist, yet his customers had a philosophy that was drastically different.”

In 1792, when Stabler opened the shop, Alexandria was a seaport city with a population of fewer than 3,000 people. The shop became a staple of commerce in Old Town for more than 130 years. It was here where George Washington’s doctor bought medicine and Robert E. Lee bought paint for the Arlington House. In 1796, Stabler advertised a meeting of the Society for the Relief of People Illegally Held in Bondage. The announcement, printed in the Alexandria Gazette, was a way to see and be seen — attracting new abolitionists to Stabler’s apothecary shop and letting everyone know where he stood on the issue of slavery.

“It sickens my heart to reflect on it,” Stabler wrote. “And when all that the friends of humanity can do, shall be done, I fear that the avarice and obduracy of America will force this tremendous corrective upon them.”

For the rest of his life, Stabler remained active in the antislavery movement. He would use his own resources to help individuals, often purchasing slaves in order to grant them freedom. He had seven sons, all of whom would eventually become pharmacists. In 1819, Edward Stabler gave the shop to his son William Stabler, the eldest son. William Stabler did not have children, so his successor was John Leadbeater, his brother-in-law. In 1852, the name of the shop was changed to reflect the new ownership. Today, the shop contains both names — Stabler and Leadbeater — and its collection of archives reveals the particular needs of a seafaring community that constantly battled yellow fever, scurvy and typhoid.

“The archives reveal a lot about sanitation and development,” Becker said. “It’s not just about medical history; it’s about American history as well.”

WHEN IT OPENS on Nov. 11, the new city-owned museum will include four distinct spaces: the 1840s-era apothecary, a gift shop, a multi-purpose meeting room and a manufacturing room. Opening up the second floor, which was previously off-limits to visitors, has doubled the size of the museum and greatly expanded the possibilities for interpretation.

“Moving from room to room reflects the evolution of a business,” said Becker. “The first floor reflects the time before the Civil War and the second floor reflects the time after the Civil War.”

The first-floor apothecary shop remains largely intact from its original use. The Gothic-revival shelves that the Stabler family installed in the 1840s are still there. The original marble counters and mirrored panels are well-worn, in constant use for generations. Interpretations of this room will provide visitors with a glimpse into the Alexandria late 18th century and early 19th century.

Upstairs, the museum will include a “manufacturing room,” where visitors will learn about the products that were once mass produced there: Stabler’s Vermifuge, Stabler’s Worm Destroyer and Leadbeater’s Anodyne Pectoral.

“We’re not going to reinvent the wheel, but we are going to take a look at how the museum is interpreted,” said Jim Mackay, acting director of the Office of Historic Alexandria. “Having the building open is a great first step, but now we’ve got to figure out what needs to be done inside.”