Homage to 2155 Webster Street

by Dr. Eugene LaBarre
Dear everyone,

Sometime on Friday, June 20, 2014, the lights went out for the dental school at 2155 Webster Street. Finding it difficult to just leave, I send you some memories and thoughts of the place.

After all, it was alma mater to more than 7,000 University of Pacific degree recipients, a reliable, excellent oral health resource for the citizens of Northern California, an agreeable workplace for its employees and the home of the Dugoni School of Dentistry during its Golden Age and as it emerged into the national spotlight.  I’m guessing there were more than three million patient visits between ribbon-cutting in 1967 and the end of clinic last week, a substantial balance sheet that we should not forget.

Unfortunately, buildings do not rate feminine personal pronouns like countries and ships so “it” will do. It was designed and constructed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (one of the largest architectural and engineering firms in the world and a pioneer of “glass box” skyscrapers). The 2155 Webster Street building has a structure of poured-in-place reinforced concrete. The building is described by the 2010 Property Assessment Report:

“The exterior is expressed in tan precast concrete panels and punched, recessed, bronze anodized metal-framed windows with tinted glazing. Windows are of uniform size.”

Objective architecture critics (including my daughters) might describe it as a late modernist commercial high rise of prominent siting and modest street appeal—conforms with the neighboring medical campus and Kennedy Tower, but argues with the Victorian homes and businesses in that area of Pacific Heights. Not quite an ivy tower (even though it has plenty of that plant on the Sacramento Street wall); the large brick plaza has potential for kite-flying or wind-farming; great location, location, location!

The interior doesn’t need description (we all know it so well!), but remember how often it was remodeled and repurposed? Learning and working at 2155 Webster included the physical challenge of negotiating construction zones. Very little of the interior remained original—parts of the fourth and sixth floors come to mind—and some areas were redesigned several times. Not only was the building functional and purposeful, it was modernized to an impressive degree. The constant attention to optimize comfort, convenience and appearance, along with expert maintenance, gave 2155 Webster Street the reputation of “The Ritz-Carlton” of dental schools.

There were some terrifying moments. When one moves to San Francisco from somewhere else, it takes a while to acclimate to earthquakes. During minor events, 2155 Webster Street would creak in a mild way, and the floor would lurch a little. I was standing in the Sacramento Street doorway when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake struck hard and I was thrown against the door frame as the building made a loud cracking groan. Upstairs some lab solvents and bookcases fell onto the floor, and equipment in the penthouse on the roof was damaged, but the severe damage was elsewhere in San Francisco. As an emergency response facility, the dental school was open during the following days when businesses and schools were closed and people were asked to stay home. For a short time, the only commute option from the East Bay was by ferry—the Bay Bridge was damaged and BART thought the transbay tube might be damaged too. At the dental school, we did endless denture adjustments to relieve sore mouths caused by worry and anxiety about the “next big one.”

Once there was a scary situation when the San Francisco SWAT team stormed the clinic after lunch. They had received a call that an armed, dangerous and wanted gang member was in the dental school. I was in the clinic when these serious, fast-moving characters in flak jackets came through the clinic entrance with guns out, motioning for us to get the hell out of the way. Anticlimax, it was a false alarm, no gang guy—just a very surprised dental patient sitting in the wrong chair.

Another freakish natural event was a strong winter storm that hit early on a Saturday morning. I was getting ready to see patients and someone said there was a problem in one of the 6th floor labs. The northwest corner window had cracked in the wild storm gusts and the pieces were vibrating like the world was about to end. The guard and I tried to duct tape the window to prevent it sailing off into Fillmore Street, 150 feet below (it was terrifying to press the tape against that bending shaking glass). Then, we ran out to the street with DO NOT TRESPASS tape to close the sidewalk below the window; we were sure the glass was going to break out and cut our heads off.

But there were a hundred high times for every low one at the Dugoni School of Dentistry. How about the Blue Angels buzzing the roof during Fleet Week each October? Or, how about the times the ADA came to San Francisco and we had an open house at 2155 Webster for the entire dental profession? Remember all the graduation weeks, and the huge celebration we had when the school was named the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry? Those are great, great memories.

There were delightful patients over the years. Back in the day, Raymond Burr (from TV’s Perry Mason and Ironside shows) came to the school, and so did Jeanette Powell (she and her husband bequeathed $100 million to the University of the Pacific). For me, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were the most memorable student clinic patients—they were San Francisco’s celebrity lesbians and gay rights activists, the first same-sex couple married by former Mayor Gavin Newsom. During appointments they patiently shared their considerable life histories with our students, describing their pioneering efforts to change legal, religious and social attitudes at a time when homosexuality was considered criminal behavior. They are really wonderful people.

Bricks and mortar don’t make a Golden Age for a dental school—they kept the humans dry, warm, safe, somewhat organized, while we did our best work, changed lives and bonded together.

Then there was Hook Mitchell from West Oakland, one of the greatest street basketball players of all time, who schooled NBA stars Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Antonio Davis, etc. He was known for a 50-inch vertical leap and 360 slam-dunking over Honda Accord cars. After run-ins with substance abuse and the law, Hook came to the dental school for a smile rehabilitation. He was a big hit with our students, showing them his moves and his video documentary, while encouraging them to keep on the “straight path” and to follow their dreams. At the end of his treatment, I had Hook do a standing jump test with a pencil—36 inches in street shoes, no warm-up. His pencil mark was a hook, way way up on the wall of the 5th floor stairwell landing, next to Dr. Yarborough’s office. It may still be there, but not for much longer.

Come to think of it, it’s not really about the building; it’s the people in it. Bricks and mortar don’t make a Golden Age for a dental school—they kept the humans dry, warm, safe, somewhat organized, while we did our best work, changed lives and bonded together. Some of the best who were ever in that building ended it there on a high note: Rhonda Bennett, Karin Johnson Lucero, Duke Dahlin (who could make the Sphinx laugh), Dr. Dennis Weir, Dr. Ryle Radke, Dr. Joel Cohen, Dr. David Nielsen and Dr. Bill Carpenter. You can’t say more about the building than to list the great people who closed it down.

I also want to give a shout out to the dental school’s longest serving full-time faculty member, Dr. Bob Christoffersen. He graduated from Pacific on Mission Street in 1967, then helped move to 2155 Webster Street that year, and has been in the building from opening to closing, all 47 years of its existence. Bob was also the person most responsible for renovating and repurposing the Webster Street facility without causing a single missed beat in the academic concert—our own steadfast and loyal phantom of the opera.

I have to recognize our fearless leaders—and I mean no fear. It took imagination and a lot of guts to come up with a plan to leave 2155 Webster, buy a property, sell the old properties, build a new dental school, then move the whole damn bunch without upsetting the opera—whew! Dean Pat Ferrillo was Pharoah, Drs. Nader Nadershahi, Richard Fredekind and Roy Bergstrom were the generals, and a lot of other people helped build the pyramid. University President Pamela Eibeck and the Board of Regents courageously supported the plan to move the dental school, and let’s not kid ourselves, they would have taken the shrapnel if the scheme blew up. My hat is off and I am in awe, seriously.

Lastly, I’ll never forget the giant himself, Art Dugoni. This week I saw him quietly loading his office things into his car at 2155 Webster Street, for the move downtown. He’s the guy who has his name on both buildings, the old and the new. And, he is the one most responsible for the success of the School of Dentistry—past, present and future—his legacy lives on at 155 Fifth Street.

So, okay old building, time to go now. You’ve really been a great “it” for us, you gave us a tremendous run. We wish you luck in your new life; we’ll certainly miss you and the Fillmore neighborhood. But truthfully, don’t take an ego trip. We moved out and we are moving up. The future is incredible for us.

With much love and affection to 2155 Webster Street,

Gene LaBarre

Eugene LaBarre, DMD, MS, is an associate professor in the Department of Integrated Reconstructive Dental Sciences.