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?

Published in the Fall 2011 issue

Tags: Campus history, Food, Student life

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