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Exploring architecture and business dynamics in South Minneapolis’ ‘dentistry district’

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
For whatever reason, 34th Avenue and 50th Street qualifies as a little dentistry district.

If you’ve ever gone out for dinner at Al Vento or Dominguez Family Restaurant at 34th Avenue South and 50th Street in far south Minneapolis, you’ve hopefully taken some time to walk around the surrounding commercial district. It’s a nice little streetcar neighborhood, good for a post-dinner stroll, situated around a cluster of both old and newer businesses – besides those two notable restaurants, there’s also the spacious Town Hall Lanes (formerly a charming little hole-in-the-wall called Skylanes that was the closest Minneapolis had to Ran-Ham Lanes), Nokomis Shoes, Oxendale Market, and the terrifically named McDonald’s Liquors. I had a friend that lived down this way, and she never tired of calling the liquor store “Mickey D’s.” “I’ll stop at Mickey D’s on the way back and pick up a Quarter Pounder,” she’d say, which was code for a fifth of whiskey.

People really have a good time in far south Minneapolis.

If you did walk around the neighborhood, you may have noticed a gem of a commercial building near the southwest corner of the intersection – a tiny and totally perfect dentist’s office, all pastels and glass blocks and curves, built in the Streamline Moderne style and looking right out of 1938. In his “AIA Guide to the Twin Cities,” Larry Millett says it looks “like a refugee from Miami Beach’s art deco district,” an observation I couldn’t improve upon myself.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The Streamline Moderne style and looking right out of 1938.

However, if you kept walking around, you may have noted two more dental offices. The architecture on these others isn’t quite as spectacular, but both are interesting in their own ways. That’s three dentist’s offices, in a one block radius. For whatever reason, 34th Avenue and 50th Street qualifies as a little dentistry district.

To investigate a little further, I went down that way recently and brought in some professionals: Accompanying me were my friends Peter Hajinian, whose father and sister are dentists in Milwaukee, and Dr. Andy Droel, who has a dental practice in Arden Hills and Lino Lakes with his wife. (Andy is, in fact, my dentist.) Both served as guides and interpreters through the far south dentistry microdistrict.

The place to start is the oldest of the offices, that little art deco structure. For decades, its been the home of Dr. Dwight DeMaine. In fact, the building has always been a dentist’s office — from the time it was constructed in the late 1930s, passed down through at least four individual dentists since then. A dental practice, both Andy and Peter told me, is the type of business that tends to be passed down the generations, either from parent to child, or from older professionals to younger professionals. Unlike other types of businesses, a dental office can comfortably remain in dentists’ hands for generations in a stable neighborhood, as long as there’s a younger dentist to step in when the older one retires or moves on to other accommodations. And there usually is. The space and the equipment is passed down, and if you’re lucky, the patients come, too.

Trendier neighborhoods can be tougher to break into, Andy tells us. Uptown, for example. The population turns over faster, and it’s harder to establish the sort of base for a multigenerational dental practice that will survive and thrive. 

The funny thing about a dental office in 1938 is that it doesn’t necessarily look like what we might expect from a dental office in 2015. A dentist who decided to build a new office from the ground up in 2015 wouldn’t – indeed, probably couldn’t – build a modest art deco gem like this one. A dental practice in the early to mid-20th century was a one-person operation. There was one chair, some tools, and maybe a receptionist. Health insurance often didn’t extend to dental practice, so people didn’t go as often. There weren’t dental hygienists – what’s called “four-handed dentistry” didn’t become prevalent until the 1960s. Because of the speed and efficiency of modern dentistry, the volume of patients is much higher. That’s why most dentist’s offices have numerous examination rooms. But this office has been grandfathered in, and has remained a dental office for at least three generations.

The marketing around DeMaine’s dental practice is keenly aware of this – the tagline on the sign promises “state of the art dentistry in a small town atmosphere.” The charm and modest size of the building is a selling point. Even Millett, writing about the building in the AIA Guide, considers the fact that “even a root canal might be fun amid such architectural delights.”

Which leads to some interesting questions about how one markets a dental practice. The irony of the architecture of this particular building is that art deco modern-style flourishes suggest such wildly different ideas in 1938 and 2015. The dentist who built the structure in 1938 almost certainly did so in this way to suggest a modern, sophisticated and state-of-the-art approach to dentistry. No pain, no outdated technology, it seems to say – here’s a dentist office in sleepy south Minneapolis that looks as up-to-date and forward-thinking as the most remarkable modern skyscrapers downtown. You can trust efficient, elegant modern practices to keep you safe and free of misery, and those modern practices are reflected in the architecture.

More than 75 years later, that same architecture suggests something else altogether. The retro styling conveys the comfort of a close-knit neighborhood, and a related sense of old-fashioned values, timelessness and longevity. People might choose this dentist for the same reason they choose to eat burgers at the Band Box or see movies at the Heights Theater. Something about it seems classic, and that seems trustworthy. 

Peter relates an anecdote in his family about a basic disagreement between his father and sister about marketing. Dental offices should be state-of-the-art, says his sister. People want to know it’ll be fast, painless and modern. Peter’s father disagrees: While those things are true, he says, the better approach is to emphasize that the experience is easy, stress-free and enjoyable. Most signage outside any dental office in America today follows one of these two philosophies.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
A geometric white flourish that seems to shorthand a squirt of toothpaste.

Dr. John Shand’s practice is a block away on 34th Avenue, next to Nokomis Shoes. The commercial structure here dates to the 1920s, and in fact, there was a tiny dentist office in this building back when the space was a drugstore. It’s the sort of old building you see a lot of in South Minneapolis – brick skeleton, big storefront windows, a place where there was awning at one point. However, the building was stuccoed at some point, and the front was renovated in a very interesting way about 40 years ago.

Gone is the storefront window – in its place is a façade of diagonal wooden planks, stained at one time but now with a patina that gives it a sort of salt-weathered beachfront quality. Three small windows remain, and are incorporated into a geometric white flourish that seems to shorthand a squirt of toothpaste. “DENTAL OFFICE,” it reads overhead, in white, sans serif wooden letters.

Looking at this from the perspective of 40 years, it also aspires to leisurely, hip modernity. The only difference is the sort of modern quality it imparts has fallen out of favor, while the art deco modernism of DeMaine’s offices remain very much in vogue. The wooden facade may be renovated again someday, which would be, in some sense, a shame – I really like the futuristic toothpaste swoop.

In the back, there’s another reminder of the constant generational turnover – a weathered old sign over the door reads “Dr. Burns / Dentist,” presumably one of Dr. Shand’s predecessors. 

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
“Dr. Burns / Dentist”

The last stop is Nokomis Family Dentistry, across the street on 34th Avenue. Superficially, it’s the least interesting building of the three. However, the morning Andy, Peter and I approach it, we’re in luck. A man is outside taking photos of the building. We approach him, and he turns out to be the landlord – a dentist himself who now teaches at the School of Dentistry at the U, and once practiced in this very building. There’s a vacancy on one of the floors, and he’s putting a listing online. Tom Stacy tells us he designed this building with his father, also a dentist, in the mid-1960s, when their practice was expanding.

We ask Dr. Stacy a few questions about the other dental offices in the neighborhood – after Andy reveals he’s both a dentist and U of M grad, Dr. Stacy is eager to chat. He mentions the dentist who’d started off in Demaine’s art deco digs, three dentists ago – “it was a small practice,” he says. “He’d come in at 11 a.m.” (As we suspected.) I ask about the close proximity of so many dental offices here, and he likens it to a medical arts building, a collection of professionals in one place.

Dr. Stacy’s glass and stucco building reflects its era well. There’s ample parking lot in the back, and a “glass box” entryway. In the same way to deco jewel box down the street reflects the modern values of the late 1930s, this building reflects the modern values of the 1960s. It’s spacious, light, and, Dr. Stacy points out, carpeted. “I always wanted to be an architect,” he admits with a smile before he gets back in his van.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by THOMAS MAUS on 02/23/2015 - 09:38 pm.

    Thanks for evoking dental nightmares from my childhood, Andy

    I recall riding a city bus, with great trepidation and two transfers, from my home in ‘Nordeast’ Minneapolis to the hostile environs of South Minneapolis for those dreaded dental appointments.

    On the positive side, the experience did prepare me for daily commuting to DeLaSalle a few years later. Going to school on an island in the middle of the Mississippi somehow seemed safer by comparison.

    And there I met a non-Nordeast classmate by the name of Larry Millett. While we shared some marvelous English classes together – he sat behind me, alphabetically of course – Larry learned to write while I….uh, learned to appreciate good writing.

  2. Submitted by Ian Stade on 01/22/2015 - 11:29 am.

    Catering to Cowards

    I was a patient of Dr. DeMaine before I got dental insurance. It was a two person shop, him and a receptionist. Another motto was “We cater to cowards.” Visits were pain free and efficient. Instead of having a hygienist scrape away at your teeth, he used some hi tech ultrasonic tool to clear away plaque.

    Very reasonable, I think he’s retired now. He aways sent a Christmas card with updates about his family. His wife had published a few novels: https://apps.hclib.org/catalog/record.cfm?author=%22DeMaine%2C%20Mary%20R%2E%22&row=1&id=4187812

    Thanks for spotlighting our ‘hood.

  3. Submitted by Joshua Houdek on 01/22/2015 - 12:20 pm.

    But where’s the tooth bike racks?

    A couple of Seward/Longfellow dentists are encouraging their patients to ride to their cleanings, while brightening the neighborhood with bike rack art:
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=219266761433943&set=t.100000518619967&type=1&theater

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