Our Iowa Heritage: Dental Building.

The Dental Building: The University’s Eye Tooth for Eighty Years.

Built in 1894, this three-story, red brick and wooden structure was the second home of the College of Dentistry. But even before the doors opened for classes in 1895, it was already too small to accommodate the growing enrollment. For decades, long after the College of Dentistry moved on, stalwart Old Dental remained ensconced, being used for a variety of purposes over the years. The two-story portion of the building (west side) was removed in 1923, making way for the construction of University Hall (Jessup), while the three-story section (east side) remained until 1975.

The Red Brick Campus: Building #10 – 1894 – 1975.

Location: Built in 1894, the Dental Building was situated immediately north of Old Capitol and North Hall, at the corner of North Capitol and Jefferson Streets.

Dentistry in Iowa: A Humble Beginning.

Historical records show that in 1860, there were 160 dentists throughout the State of Iowa. And while few people even today look forward to a visit to their dentist, pity our poor ancestors who experienced this type of dental care…

In 1863, in an attempt to modernize the practice of dentistry across the state and offer a place where the sharing of knowledge could occur, The Iowa State Dental Society (ISDS) was established. Yet only seven dentists and one apprentice attended the first gathering. One dentist explained his reluctance this way…

Eventually, after ten years of persistence, the ISDS finally gained enough momentum to persuade the Iowa legislature to pass a law (1882) regulating the practice of dentistry across the state.

As a result, a new dental department was established at the State University in Iowa City, making SUI the 13th dental school in the U.S. and only the 3rd west of the Mississippi River. Yet while this milestone was a key development in the training of dentists, this fledgling dental school received only minimal support in starting their new endeavor.

Consider this: The first classes offered in dentistry in 1883 met in two small rooms in South Hall, one on the first floor and one in the basement, working within a $300 budget given by the Board of Regents. Records show that the department had the following inventory: one used dental chair, fifteen pre-owned barber chairs, and a handful of dental equipment. There was no minimum entrance requirements in 1883, so literally anyone could sign up for the ten month program, receiving certification if you met the following requirements: 1) you must be at least 21 years old, 2) you must make an artificial denture, 3) you must complete one case of operative dentistry in the clinic, and 4) you must write a two-page thesis!

Here’s the Dental School’s first faculty: Left to right: William O. Kulp; Luman C. Ingersoll; Israel P. Wilson; Alfred O. Hunt.

The New Dental Building: The Dental School’s Home of Their Own.

But despite these humble beginnings, the School of Dentistry was a huge success. By the late 1880’s, the school had outgrown its first home and looking for a way to expand.

A new three-story dental building to be built on the north side of University Square was proposed through a special appropriation of $25,000 from the Twenty-Fifth General Assembly.

This 1895 picture shows North Hall (on the left), the new Science Hall (on the right) and the new Dental Building (center) along with the beautiful oak trees of University Square.

Katherine Bates, author of an insightful look at the earliest facilities of the University, writes in 1949 about what happened next…

The Building Committee assumed supervision of construction, accepting the bid made by P. H. Wind for $21,175 on June 13, 1894. This appeared to be well within the limits of the appropriation, however, with a change in construction plans, it became apparent that more funds would be needed. To the original amount was added $2,546.33 from the Income Fund, and the Twenty-Sixth General Assembly granted an additional appropriation of $2500.


When opened in 1895, the main building measured eighty by seventy-two feet, with two wings on the west side each measuring fifty-four by twenty-eight feet. The building contained, in addition to clinic, demonstration, lecture rooms and offices, a well-equipped dental laboratory accommodating 150 students.

Dental Class in the new Dental Building.
The Dental Clinic.
Lecture Hall in the new Dental Building.
A promotional flyer in 1910.

But despite the new facilities and growing influence, facility issues began to develop right away. First of all, with the success of the department, enrollment was such that the new building was undersized from day one.

The Class of 1902.

Reports from students indicated problems like uneven heating and ventilation, poor lighting, and inadequate means of sterilizing lab work. To address some of these issues, a very small addition to the building was made in 1906 but with President MacLean‘s “New University” facility plan, the idea of a huge expansion on University Square was out of the question.

Circa 1910 – University Square is in transition. MacLean’s “New University” plan was to remove all existing buildings surrounding Old Capitol, replacing them with large educational halls, such as The Hall of Natural Science (MacBride) seen here on the far left.
(P-0234) Click here to view the postcard story of the Wieneke family.

So, in 1915 the General Assembly approved a new state-of-the-art dental building to be located near the corner of Market and North Capitol Streets with a cost of $290,000 fully equipped.

The new Dental Science Building (1917-1973) was reprogrammed for the Department of Geology in 1973, becoming the Trowbridge Building; named after Arthur C. Trowbridge, a longtime geology professor at the University.

The new Dental Science Building opened for the 1917-18 school year, leaving the Old Dental Building up for grabs. In 1917, the building was given to the University Experimental Schools, but by 1923, it became necessary to remove the west wing of the building to allow for the construction of the fifth and final building in MacLean’s “New University” plan. When University Hall (Jessup) was completed in 1924, only two red-brick buildings remained on University Square: North Hall (1865) and the Old Dental Building (1894). Keep in mind that the Science Hall (1884) was relocated across the street in 1905 (Calvin Hall). Click here to read that story.

Circa 1925: MacLean’s “New University” plan is nearly complete, but note that North Hall and the old Dental Building are still intact just north of Old Capitol. In the 1920’s, after the completion of University Hall (Jessup), students and faculty called the campus “University Square” or the “Five Spot.” A naming contest in the Daily Iowan newspaper resulted in the winning name… The Pentacrest.

In 1927, the Department of Buildings and Grounds took over Old Dental, renaming it the Physical Plant Administration Building and using it for office space, storage and equipment. In 1949, North Hall came down, but Old Dental, as the students still called it, stood for nearly three more decades.

I remember it well when I was a student on campus in the early 1970’s. Since it was the Buildings Department administrative building, I never went inside for any classes, but passed by the old lady on a regular basis on my way to classes in Macbride Hall. By then, it really looked its age. . .

So. . . What Stands on this Spot Today?

In 1975, Old Dental, the oldest Red Brick building still remaining on campus (other than Old Capitol and Calvin Hall), finally met its end at the hands of the wicked wrecking ball. Today, the grassy lawn between Macbride Hall (left) and Jessup Hall (right) is all you will find.

In 1973, with the relocation of the health sciences to the new Medical Campus on the western bluffs of the Iowa River, the growing Dental Science Department moved into a new facility, which eventually became part of the extensive world-class dental training campus it is today. Certainly a far cry from the days when dentistry was done by any strong-willed man who could wrestle their patient to the ground!

So, here’s to the Old Dental Building . . gone, but never forgotten.

DYK-February 9, 2022

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

History of the State University of Iowa: Aspects of the Physical Structure, Katherine V. Bates, MA (Master of Arts) thesis, State University of Iowa, 1949, pp 131-132

University of Iowa Libraries: Iowa Digital Library website

Historical Chronology of The College of Dentistry & Dental Clinics, Christine White, 2015, College of Dentistry and Dental Clinics

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