Museum of Dentistry finds a home


May 05, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

One of the oldest buildings on the downtown campus of the University of Maryland at Baltimore will soon be home to the city's newest specialty museum, the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry.

If the state Board of Public Works approves Wednesday, contractors will begin immediately to renovate the exterior of a building near Greene and Lombard streets to house the $5.8 million project, the only national museum dedicated to the history of dentistry.

Henry H. Lewis Contractors Inc., an Owings Mills firm that recently restored the roof of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home, Monticello, is the leading candidate to carry out the restoration.

The museum's most famous artifact is George Washington's lower denture. (The upper denture was stolen in 1981, while on loan to the Smithsonian Institution).

Other items include toothbrushes, tongue scrapers, scalers, drills, mouth mirrors, dentists' chairs, ancient devices used to pull teeth and tooth-related artwork.

When the museum opens in 1996, the collection will be used to tell visitors about the history of dentistry and preventive care.

"Our challenge is to take a straightforward chronological tale and make that story come to life," said Ben Z. Swanson Jr., the museum's director and one of two U.S. residents with a master's degree in the history of dentistry. "We have to engage the public."

Planning for the museum began in 1984 as a joint effort of the American Dental Association, the American Academy of the History of Dentistry, and the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery at the University of Maryland. The museum now operates as a nonprofit organization with an independent board.

Fund-raisers recently passed the halfway point in their campaign. The lead gift came from Dr. Harris, a retired Detroit dentist who donated $1 million in 1992. This spring, planners received a $500,000 donation from Bud and Linda Tarrson of Chicago. For more than 40 years, Mr. Tarrson was head of the John O. Butler Co., which makes oral hygiene products. The Tarrsons' gift brought the funds raised to $3.15 million.

"Over the last year, it has really taken on a life of its own," said M. Ellen Dahl, the museum's director of development and public affairs.

Although the museum is a private venture, the 20,000-square-foot building chosen to house it will remain state property, on permanent loan to the museum. Designed in a Roman Renaissance-revival style by Baltimore architect George Haskell, the 1904 structure at 31 S. Greene St. was known until recently as the Med-Tech Building. It has contained a variety of university departments over the years, but planners say it's ideal for the museum.

It is located on the campus of the world's first dental school, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, which was founded in 1840 and merged with the University of Maryland in 1923. It was built as the home of the university's dental department and served as the dental school until 1929.

The state has agreed to spend up to $880,000 on exterior renovations. Interior renovations and exhibit design and fabrication are the responsibility of the museum.

The project also involves partial restoration of Davidge Hall, an 1812 landmark known as "the oldest medical education building in continuous use in the western hemisphere," and construction of a three-story Health Sciences Hall that will link the dental museum with Davidge Hall.

The dental museum is envisioned as the anchor for a proposed cluster of museums related to health and science, including medicine, pharmacy and nursing. Called the UniversityCenter Health Sciences Museum, the larger complex will be a west-side counterpart to "Museum Row" along the lower Jones Falls.

The Vitetta Group of Philadelphia is the architect for the dental museum. Miles Fridberg Molinaroli of Washington is the exhibit designer.

Directors hope to stage their 1996 grand opening on Feb. 9. That's the "feast day" of St. Apollonia, patron saint of toothache sufferers.

City Life Museums

June 10 is the groundbreaking date for the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, a $5.8 million addition to Museum Row. Designed by Peterson and Brickbauer, it will feature the restored cast iron facade of the G. Fava Fruit Co.

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