Birmingham’s Redesigned Mills Pharmacy is an Architectural Mood-elevator

WONDER DRUG: Architect thinks outside the pillbox for pharmacy renovation
Photograph by Christian Unverzagt, M1/DTW

Pharmacy design and good architecture mix about as often as amphetamines and barbiturates.

Think drugstore, and the mental image is likely one of fluorescent lights, linoleum floors, windowless walls, and cookie-cutter facades.

But the designers of the newly redone Mills Pharmacy on West Maple Road in Birmingham proposed a different prescription for the makeover of the longtime neighborhood retailer. M1/DTW, a Detroit-based firm directed by Christian Unverzagt, stitched together the remnants of three storefronts, converting the strip from Colonial to contemporary. The new look flaunts a glazed-brick wall complemented by weathered copper and reclaimed wood on the exterior. Inside, earthy woods enliven ceiling panels, floors are polished concrete, and countertops are sleek black. As expected, some visitors have asked when the carpeting will be installed. But the new owners — brothers Hany and Pierre Boutros — say they’re excited to offer a major transition for this 65-year-old mainstay that sits at the edge of a comfortable, traditional neighborhood.

Unverzagt says his team didn’t worry about fitting the architectural mold. Artistically innovative Cranbrook is nearby and the church across the street has many mid-century elements. “This was a strip that needed to be enlivened, so we treated it like a pair of jeans that would become comfortable quickly; we used a warm, friendly palette of materials that would age gracefully.”

Inside, the Boutros brothers envisioned a more European-style environment and product line. They added a gourmet market stocked with wine and liquor, along with a café and apothecary carrying upscale products more often found in department stores. Along with Benadryl and Band-Aids, the new Mills Pharmacy will sell luxury-shaving supplies for men, skin-care products, fragrances, and cosmetics.

Longtime patrons will still find the familiar faces of pharmacists behind the counter — and might even see them more clearly, thanks to wide ribbons of glass running parallel to shelving. The glass also gives the staff a better view of products when assisting patrons. Customers entering at the rear can follow the over-the-counter corridor past a consultation window at the center of the shop to a bright coffee bar at the front. Maple Road pedestrians also can see into the apothecary and coffee shop.

Key to the new look is the abundant natural light that streams in from the glass front and center skylight. Call it a sort of architectural mood-elevator.

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