icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Caltech’s Architectural Heritage: From Spanish Tile to Modern Stone

Caltech began in 1891 as Throop University founded by Chicago businessman Amos Throop. When astronomer George Ellery Hale joined Throop’s board of trustees in 1907, he persuaded them to change the focus of the school from manual arts training into a first-rate college of science and technology. Hale believed in the importance of adding an aesthetic dimension to the lives of scholars by creating a serene environment with a combination of cohesive architecture and beautiful landscaping.

In 1910 the University moved to a donated 22-acre plot bordered by four streets. Architects Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey began work on a master plan and designed the first building, Throop Hall. After seeing the work of Bertram Goodhue for the buildings of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, Hale persuaded the trustees that this nationally renowned architect was the best candidate to develop his ideal campus.

Using ideas from urban planning, Goodhue made the east-west axis of Hunt and Grey’s plan the defining line of his own work, adding plazas and courtyards similar to Spanish towns. For the academic buildings he created rectilinear forms with flexible interiors, and simple facades linked by arcades that would provide shelter and give continuity to the campus. Decoration, inspired by motifs on Renaissance buildings in central and southern Spain, was concentrated over entry doors and important windows with colorful tile work adding to the Spanish ambience. As a focal point, Goodhue designed a Memorial Building with a magnificent blue-tiled dome to be built on the opposite side of the central square to Throop Hall. Inspired by a visit to the Taj Mahal, Goodhue created a courtyard with a reflecting pool down its central axis and cypress trees bordering arcades on either side as the approach to the central building.

Unfortunately Goodhue died in 1924 only eight years after he had started work on the Caltech master plan. Although the Memorial building and reflecting pool were never constructed, Goodhue himself completed five buildings, four of which remain, and his architectural firm in New York City, Goodhue Associates, designed eleven more buildings of the original scheme.

In 1928 the Trustees hired Gordon Kaufmann, a British architect resident in Pasadena, to develop the social and residential portion of the campus. Kaufmann’s design for the Athenaeum and South Student Houses retained the essence of Goodhue’s scheme. Using a blend of Mediterranean motifs, Kaufmann’s architecture was richer in detail and more suited to residential buildings. The Athenaeum, which Hales envisioned as a meeting place for all the great minds of Caltech and its associated institutions, is often thought of as the richest jewel in Caltech’s architectural crown.

Millikan wanted the best possible housing for his erudite students. Following a study on student housing in the U.S. and overseas, a group of four houses with seventy-five students in each was constructed. Continuing the Mediterranean theme, Kaufmann designed the houses around open courtyards that would serve as gathering places with each house having its own architectural theme expressed in humorous gargoyles and decorative details.

Following World War II, the leaders found it necessary to expand the campus to accommodate much-needed scientific facilities. By now regional architecture had given way to a universal modernism. Master plans located the buildings but different architectural firms executed the designs resulting in an eclectic mix of functional buildings. In the 1980s a brilliant landscaping scheme brought some cohesion to the post-war campus.

In 1989 the City of Pasadena required a new Master Plan to establish guidelines for future expansion with the Beckman Auditorium, which terminated the south to north axis in the post-war phase, now becoming an anchor for the expansion of the campus to Del Mar Boulevard. The report suggested that buildings be designed in the spirit of Caltech’s original campus, and for the next decade a modern Mediterranean theme was dominant. However, as the 21st century gets under way modifications have been made to the 1989 plan because the leaders felt that, in keeping with Caltech’s role on the cutting edge of scientific discoveries, new buildings should conform to current architectural trends.

Arcades, courtyards and landscaping retain the park-like setting established by the original leaders and the designs of Bertram Goodhue. The beautifully planted grounds, which continue to be the essential link that holds together the different areas of the campus, recall Hale’s vision of "planted patios and shaded portales, sheltering walls and Persian pools."


Romy Wyllie's history of Caltech's architecture is instructive, tragic, and challenging. It shows us how American architects of the early twentieth century like Goodhue and Kaufmann were able to shape a clear, firm, harmonious environment, a wonderful place, and how their successors later in the century came close to destroying it. Failing one of the Institute's famous explosions, nothing much can be done about the Library, but the architects who are now studying Caltech's future should keep this book in mind. It is the genius of the place that counts, the noble garden.
–Vincent Scully, Sterling Professor Emeritus of the History of Art, Yale University

A work of immaculate scholarship that is highly readable, this book tells for the first time the fascinating story of the architectural development of Caltech, one of America's greatest academic Institutions.
–Robert Winter, Professor Emeritus of the History of Ideas, Occidental College

A University's campus--its buildings, its landscaping, its style, embody its history, its aspirations and its relation to the surrounding community. Romy Wyllie's "Caltech's Architectural Heritage" deals perceptively with these elements which provided the physical environment in which Caltech's research and teaching evolved and flourished.
–Dr. Harold Brown, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC