I’ve been thinking about buildings recently, thanks to the university’s public announcement of its 15-year plan for building developments on the Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington campuses. Right at the top of the priority list, with plans already well underway, is a new dental school. It seems a good moment, then, to look back at the university’s first dental school building, which has been through some interesting changes of use in its 107-year history.
The building, on the busy corner of Union and Castle streets and just across the Leith from the existing university complex, was designed by Dunedin architect James Louis Salmond specifically for the university’s new dental school, which commenced in 1907. The builders, McKinnon and Hamilton, completed the work that year. The stone building, with one wall finished in brick to allow for later extensions, cost £2421 (just under $400,000 in 2014 values). At the grand official opening in April 1908 the Otago Daily Times described the building as “well lighted, but at present rather bare”: that was probably because building costs had absorbed most of the budget of £2500 (a government grant of £1500 plus £1000 raised by the Dental Association), leaving little over for furnishings. It was, in the words of the newspaper, “a scholastic-looking edifice on the banks of the Water of Leith close to the University. On the ground floor is the director’s office, waiting room, examinations rooms, anaesthetic department, and mechanical laboratory; while above is the ‘filling’ room, the museum, and the lecture hall.”
There weren’t many dental students to begin with: just 2 in 1907 and 14 the following year; the roll didn’t exceed 20 until 1918. But right from the beginning there were plenty of patients; there was no shortage of Dunedin residents in need of dental care but unable to afford the going rates. At the official opening in 1908 the school’s director, Englishman H.P. Pickerill, commented that “he had been prepared for something bad, but the condition of the people’s teeth here was simply appalling.” To provide adequate space for all the patients, the building was extended upwards in 1909. As student numbers grew after World War I, yet more space was needed, and in 1921 the building was extended to the north. This time the design was done by Edmund Anscombe, who carried out much of the university’s architectural work in the 1910s and 1920s. The initial extension was just one storey, but a second storey was completed in 1923.
The dental school’s setting just beside the Leith was picturesque, but proved disastrous when, just after the extensions were completed, a flood undermined one corner (and led to Ian Chirnside losing his box brownie camera!). This damage, along with the steady growth of the school, prompted plans for a move to a more adequate building. Thanks to a government grant of £25,000, the university was able to build a new dental school in Great King Street, which opened in 1926. This second school is now known as the Marples Building; when the third and current dental school building was opened in 1961, the former school became the home of the Department of Zoology.
Meanwhile, the space in the original dental school building was too good to waste, especially after the city council invested in major flood protection work following the largest recorded flood of the Leith, in 1929. That year the University Council decided to make it the home of its administration, and architects Miller and White designed a suitable conversion. For a quarter of a century the building served as the Registry, the hub of university operations. Then, in the 1960s, the continuing growth of the university roll led to another change. The Dunedin campus expanded rapidly to cope with the growing number of students. With the opening of a new university library in 1965 (replaced by the current Information Services Building in 2001), and the beginnings of the development of major new science buildings, the old teaching spaces and library in the Clocktower Building were freed up to become the new home of the Registry in 1966.
The building then reverted to a space for professional education once again, this time for the law school. As I explained in a recent post, Otago’s law school was for many decades located off-campus, in the law offices of its part-time lecturers and the Supreme Court building. In 1966 it moved into the old Registry at the heart of the campus, with the law library downstairs and a lecture room and offices upstairs. The large old safe where the university had once stored its valuables now housed law journals. This was a big step up for law students and staff, but, just like the dental school, the law school soon outgrew the building. There were just 161 law students and 3 full-time academic staff in 1966, but ten years later there were 471 students and 12 full-time staff and conditions were very cramped. It was with some relief that the law school, including its ever-expanding library, moved into its new premises in the Richardson Building (now known as the Hocken Building) in 1980.
The old building then moved into its fourth – and current – stage of life, and was turned into the Staff Club. The Senior Common Room Association, which until then had met in the Student Union, raised funds for alterations, which were subsidised by the university. These converted the historic venue into a series of rooms where staff could gather over food and drink – an intriguing contrast from the days when students drilled teeth there. The club has since hosted many functions, both formal and informal, with the balcony overlooking the Leith and the Clocktower Building providing a pleasant outdoor lunch venue on fine days. Many an esoteric conversation must have taken place in this building over the years!
The building now known as the Staff Club is a charming one with a most interesting past. Its significance is recognised by Heritage New Zealand (formerly the New Zealand Historic Places Trust), who in 1988 listed it as an historic building. As their listing notes, together with the adjacent old university buildings, it “constitutes a major example of nineteenth and early twentieth century Gothic in New Zealand, impressive in its size and completeness.”