Rennie’s: Then and Now

rennie's collage

Bryce Richter photo. Inset: Wisconsin Historical Society/image id 34400

The store and its name evoke memories both strong and sweet. A once-upon-a-time tradition is coming back to life on University Avenue.

Back then, there was a cigar counter and a steady stream of professors and students grabbing a hot breakfast or lunch at the grill between classes.

But by the time Rennie’s — vintage Madison shorthand for Rennebohm Drug Store — on University Avenue (see inset photo) was demolished in 2008, it had been closed for more than twenty-five years. For many, the store and its name evoke memories both strong and sweet. (The famous grilled Danish is legendary.)

Now, in its place, stands the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, a modern structure built to house some of UW–Madison’s biggest thinkers. On the ground floor of this monument to innovation, an airy and modern Rennie’s Dairy Bar opened this summer. There are stools at a long, white, marble counter, just as it was in the old days. And there are once again floats, malts, and sundaes on the menu, this time made with organic ice cream from the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant.

These days many customers don’t know that Rennie’s is a borrowed name, or where it came from.

Oscar Rennebohm, who served one term as Wisconsin’s governor, opened his first drug store on the spot in 1925. He owned more than two dozen in Madison before selling the business to Walgreens in 1980. In the years that followed, many natives still referred to Walgreens as Rennie’s. Some local preservationists tried, but failed, to save the original Rennebohm building by getting it declared a historic city landmark.

The university moved ahead with the new research facility, razing Rennie’s and six other buildings. Most of the materials that made up the 1300 block of University Avenue were recycled or reused, including an ornate stone R, which is on display just outside the new soda fountain, a physical reminder of fond memories.

Inside, Rennie’s stands ready, just as many newly minted gathering spaces on this evolving campus do: a blank slate poised to become a tradition for generations to come.

Root beer float, anyone?

Tags: Campus history, Food, Student life

9 comments

  1. [...] of research space — and three restaurants. Learn more about one of them, Rennie’s Dairy Bar, in Traditions. Photo by Jeff [...]

    Follow the Yellow Brick Road « On Wisconsin
  2. I am glad that the memory of Rennies has been maintained. It was a wonderful home grown place that served many people around the city. I was in this particular Rennies in a booth at the back having a soda with friends when Kennedy was shot.

    Cathie Bruner
  3. Ah Rennie's two eggs over easy with hash browns for $1.99. It was a great place to start the day for those of us working in Agriculture Hall in the mid 1970's. It had its regulars from Engineering too.

    Thanks for bringing back the memory.

    Gerry Campbell
  4. [...] library, I’d stop at Rennebohm’s for an orange juice and muffin — total bill $1. The article “Rennie’s: Then and Now” [Fall 2011 Traditions] brought back fond memories of the UW and [...]

    Letters: Rennie’s Memories « On Wisconsin
  5. Have been craving a Rennie's grilled danish for the past 30+ years. Nothing has come close to it!

    Terry Musolf
  6. Rennebohm Rexall Drug Stores, what a memory.

    Grilled Danish to die for. Loved the Bucky Burgers. Not a bad chocolate malt (Ice Cream Shop definitely better). Make mine a cherry phosphate please.

    Fond memories of testing TV tubes in the machine and buying new tubes.

    And YES, I can still sing the jingles!

    RJ Samp
  7. My parents tell the story of meeting in Madison in 1948. One of their favorite dates was to go to Rennebohm Drug Store for the Rennebohm Special (a brownie sundae). I just ordered two T-shirts for them on-line. We will be celebrating their 90th birthdays and 65th wedding anniversary in July. We'll be serving the Rennebohm Special, of course.

    MA Matzke
  8. I attended Wisconsin High School 7th thru 12th grades. I was in the class of 1964. The last graduating class of the school. As we will be celebrating our 50th reunion in July, I have begun to make mini trips down Memory Lane. Rennies on Univ Ave, is a huge part of my youth as it was our daily hang-out as we arrived and waited for the city bus or ran across the street at lunchtime to grab that famous Grilled Danish and a vanilla or cherry coke. ( the original kind made with flavored syrup) Wow.
    I haven't been back in over 25 years. Since before they demolished Whisky High. I'm prepared to be amazed by the changes. Looking forward to visiting the new Rennies soda fountain to have my very favorite sundae, The Dusty Road which we'd run over and get at the Babcock Dairy during lunches when the days were warm and sunny. We could also get the greatest ice cream cones: one huge scoop for 8 cents, and twice the yumminess of 2 schools for 15 cents. Hopefully I can still get my sundae. I've been dreaming about it for years.
    I'm surprised that no one had mentioned anything about the Rennebohm drugs on State Street. The hang-out for the University students better known as the "Pharm".

    Joan Reznichek Fleming
  9. I could go for a Rennie's cherry coke and yummy fries. My friend Lynn and I would go there are least once a week. It was under a buck for both. Wonderful memories of Rennebohm's Drug Store. My soon to be 87 year old mom just asked about them. I remember when I was in grade school, we would go there for candy. My brother and I got a quarter to spend, money was tight back them. You could go home with pocketful of candy for a quarter. Many good memories were made there!

    Sharon Paulsen (Halberslaben)

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