EDITOR's NOTE: This is the first in a a series about the underground in Coos County, and other historically significant items in local buildings.
COOS BAY — Beneath one of the oldest buildings in Coos Bay, the roar of passing cars is muffled and light from the sidewalk flickers while people walk by boarded-up doors.
“Busy Corner Drugs was a feature here,” said Jim Berg, owner of North Point Real Estate and the Coke Building.
As he said this, he shined a flashlight on the old drugstore sign. Its neon lightbulbs now sit under a layer of dust in the far reaches of the Coke Building’s basement, forgotten next to the building’s abandoned wood furnace.
The boarded up doors leading into the basement were once used by Busy Corner Drugs to reach its storage space below, where it kept all of its prescription records and medicine in stock.
Today, Berg opened a door to that space to reveal a time capsule. It appears just as it did when Busy Corner Drugs closed shop in the 1960s. Big, clouded bottles of medicine well past their expiration dates sit on the floor and shelves along the walls. Some of these bottles have grown mold on the inside, but all of them sit covered in dust.
What’s more, all of the prescription notes are still neatly gathered in boxes or stuck with pins to the walls or ceiling beams.
“It started in the corner there on Central Avenue, but then moved to the middle of the block,” said local historian Lionel Youst. “It became a joke that Busy Corner Drugs wasn’t on the corner anymore.”
As owner of the building, Berg hasn’t bothered getting rid of this collection of history because, as he put it, “It’s not something you pack up and take to the landfill.”
“We knew it was historic, so we wanted to get connected to a museum but haven’t yet in the 25 years we’ve known this is here,” Berg explained. “This old pharmacy storeroom dates back to 1910 and since these are personal records, a historic society needs to take responsibility for it. It has only been by accident that we were left with this.”
Even so, Berg has taken care of it. Because downtown Coos Bay is on top of a marsh, local businesses often have to worry about flooding. When the tides rise, water seeps in from beneath Highway 101. In the Coke Building, that water is removed through a sump-pump.
Not only that, but Berg has another gem hidden within the building. Upstairs is 10,000 square feet of beautiful office space with intricate woodwork and hallways 14 feet tall. This used to be home to law and doctor offices before it was vacated in the 1960s.
When these businesses moved out, the windows were covered with concrete slabs, though the windows are still intact. A new roof was put on top of the old roof, covering numerous skylights, but not all. Now the only skylights that remain are above the spacious vestibule, or what was once a lobby. Pigeons are the only ones left to enjoy it.
But Berg has hopes to restore the upstairs.
“It would be costly though,” he said. “It has to be a reasonable business venture. If I had the money, perhaps it would open back up to business offices again or an apartment or two. It is a big financial deal, and if Coos Bay comes to the point where it makes sense, then we would have reason to do it.”
Jim Berg shines a light Thursday on old prescription files in the basement of the Coke Building, which was once home to The Busy Corner Drugs …
In the meantime, Berg has put in efforts to put the Coke Building on the National Register of Historic Places. In a previous application, which Berg plans on doing again, it outlines the building’s origins and includes a biography on the man the building was named after: John Scory Coke.
“The construction of this building, and others including the Chandler, was an important chapter in local commercial and economic history because it marked the permanent shift of Marshfield’s business district away from the waterfront in response to the community’s prosperity and confidence in continued growth,” the application read. “The Coke Building is a particularly appropriate example of the business district’s shift because it demonstrated the economic confidence which motivated the shift.”
According to the application, during emergency repairs to the southwest corner a few years ago, an opening in the wall showed the exterior yellow brick was stamped “Carnegie.”
“This brick was shipped from San Francisco to Marshfield (the original name of Coos Bay) as ballast in returning empty lumber vessels,” the application stated. “Early in the research for this nomination, it was thought that some connection might exist between this brick and the wealthy industrialist Andrew J. Carnegie.”
Jim Berg walks past an old pharmacy sign Thursday in the basement of the Coke Building, which he owns, in Coos Bay. The downtown building once…
However, no connection has ever been established.
Among the information offered in the application, the Coke Building has an original hand cranked, wire cage elevator in the shaft adjacent to the stairwell. It also suffered a fire caused by the basement’s heating boiler, though there was no structural damage.
As for the history sitting below in the dark from Busy Corner Drugs, Youst said that there is a historical significance there if ever a historian had the interest.
“If someone was interested in what prescriptions were made, they would have a treasure trove down there,” he said. “It is raw data. Historians make things significant if they do a dissertation on a certain subject.”
And Berg would like to see it preserved.
This is the beginning of a series on the underground in Coos County, and other historical significance in local buildings. If your building has hidden gems like the Coke Building, email email@example.com.