A Walking Tour of Caltech

Living in Pasadena, the campus of the California Institute of Technology (better known as Caltech) has been a welcome respite during the pandemic. The lush campus, with its turtle pond, fountains, historic buildings, and groves of eucalyptus trees, makes for a scenic walk and a peaceful sanctuary. I’d dare say it’s probably Pasadena’s best park.

Although most of the buildings on campus are accessible only by staff and students, the campus grounds have remained open through the pandemic, providing a much-needed place for outdoor recreation. There’s a lot of interesting buildings and gardens tucked around campus, so we’ve put together a walking tour of the highlights of the Caltech campus.

Transit-wise, a lot of routes come very close to Caltech, but only a couple serve the campus directly. Metro #267 and Pasadena Transit #10 pass by on Del Mar along the northern edge of campus, but neither run very often. However, there are frequent routes on Lake Avenue (Pasadena Transit #20) just three blocks to the west and Colorado Boulevard (Metro #180 and Foothill Transit #187) five blocks to the north. Caltech is also within the Pasadena zone of Metro Micro, an on-demand shared ride service that can take you straight to campus from just about anywhere in Pasadena (see the website for details and instructions). Lake Station on the Metro Gold Line is just a 20 minute walk north from the edge of campus at Del Mar and Wilson Avenue, where we will start our tour.

A quick note: because most of the buildings on campus are closed to the public, it can be pretty hard to find a bathroom on campus, especially during the pandemic. Fortunately, Pasadena has maintained the public restrooms and water fountains in their city parks, one of which is in Grant Park, between Michigan and Chester Avenues just a block north of campus.

1. Neuroscience Research Building: Right on the corner of campus, facing Wilson and Del Mar, is one of the newest buildings on campus. The brand new neuroscience building is a contemporary structure of glass and odd angles, with bronze panels that shine in the sunlight. The entry point on Wilson is a palm tree court, but I recommend walking down Del Mar to enter via the new garden. It’s got the feel of a desert garden, with lots of stones and succulents, although as it slopes toward the building’s basement you can see ferns planted in the shade. A bridge traverses this slope into the center of the building, which is illuminated in soft blue light at nighttime.

Cross the bridge, then continue straight through between the next set of buildings before turning left into the vine-covered archways of the building marked “Beckman Institute.”

2. Beckman Institute: This is one of the prettiest buildings on campus, built in the Spanish mission style with arcades on both sides that open onto a lush courtyard. The building holds a chemistry and biological research center, named for a former Caltech professor who invented the first pH meter as a way for local citrus growers to measure the acidity of lemon juice.

The building has two fountains. One is in the center of the courtyard, with a sculpture of a polyhedron coated in water gently flowing down its surfaces. A plaque explains the significance of the polyhedron shape (something to do with protein structure?), but it’s so bogged down with technical jargon that it’s hard to glean any knowledge from it unless you have a bioscience background. Appropriately nerdy for Caltech.

The other fountain is a pleasant reflecting pool, dubbed the “Gene Pool” (get it?), with colored tile along the bottom laid out in a double-helix pattern. It sits on the other side of the building from where you entered, linking the Beckman Institute to our next stop.

3. Beckman Auditorium: Right in the middle of campus is Caltech’s only decent example of Space Age architecture. This circular building was designed in the 1960s by Edward Durell Stone, a very prominent modernist architect who also designed MoMA in New York City and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., along with many other notable buildings of the era. All the details of the auditorium are worth admiring, from the sleek roof edge, to the starburst pattern at the top of each column, to the unique lanterns hanging along the outside.

Walk around the auditorium to the opposite side, then continue down the path southeast towards the heart of campus. You’ll pass by a series of laboratory buildings on the way. When you reach San Pasqual Walk (one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares on campus), you’ll see an outdoor seating area with a lot of colorful umbrellas, marking the next stop.

4. Hameetman Center: This relatively new building serves as the student center, holding a pair of cafes flanking the outdoor seating area and the Caltech store. The most interesting feature of the building is on the other side; walk through the seating area, pass through the little tunnel next to the store, and on the side facing Olive Walk (another pedestrian thoroughfare) will be a sundial embedded in the sidewalk. You just have to stand in the right place and use your own shadow to tell the time; a plaque on the building explains how to use it.

From where you came out of the Hameetman Center, turn left (east) down Olive Walk and head a short ways. This stretch of walkway is lined with olive trees, and you can see some citrus trees down a walkway on your right (although a sign will remind you not to collect any fruit, as it’s apparently being used for a science project). Caltech has a House System for its undergraduate housing, modeled after British schools (think Harry Potter) and some of the East Coast Ivies, and this part of campus is where most of them are concentrated. The first house on your right is Fleming House, which has the strangest landmark on campus right out front.

5. Fleming House Cannon: There’s no plaque on-site to explain what an antique cannon is doing here, so here’s the story: this cannon was cast during the Franco-Prussian War, although it was never actually used in a battle. The French then gave it to the American military, who hung on to it until it became obsolete, when they in turn donated it to a military academy in San Marino, where it sat on their front lawn for many decades. In the 1970s, the academy decided that they didn’t want it any more, so Fleming House got a hold of it and restored it to working order.

The cannon is fired to mark special events, such as the end of term and graduation. It has also been stolen not once, but twice. Students at Harvey Mudd College, a science and engineering school in Claremont, managed to snag it in 1986, and exactly 20 years later students from MIT (which has a rivalry with Caltech as the nation’s other top science and engineering school, a rivalry which mainly expresses itself in the form of very elaborate pranks) managed to pose as contractors and secret the thing all the way back to Massachusetts before returning it. It now sits chained to the ground, in case anyone else gets any ideas.

Turn around and head the other way (west) on Olive Walk, towards the large grove of trees at the center of campus.

6. Throop Memorial Garden: This is the most peaceful spot on campus, where you’ll find the turtle pond that’s the highlight of any stroll through Caltech. The garden occupies the footprint of Throop Hall, a neoclassical structure that was the first building on campus when it was built in 1910, but torn down after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake over fears that it would collapse. Now a little stream splashes down through the garden, filling a pair of pools that are home to sunbathing turtles. A lush canopy of trees shades the garden, with many fragrant eucalyptus trees, and you’ll often see squirrels darting across the treetops.

The boulders throughout the garden were selected by Caltech’s geological department to represent the various periods of local geologic history. A plaque affixed to one of the boulders at the base of the garden, facing you as you approach, details each boulder’s age and where it was acquired.

7. Caltech Library/Pond: Directly above the garden is one of the most significant landmarks on campus: the 10-story main library, easily the tallest building on campus, overlooking a long reflecting pool that links it to the Throop Garden. Until very recently, both the library and the pool had been named after Robert Andrews Millikan, a physicist (and the man who coined the term “cosmic rays”) who presided over Caltech from the 1920s through the ’40s, establishing the college as a preeminent institution of science. However, Millikan’s support of eugenics has put a bad taste in people’s mouths, and this year the college opted to strip his name off the building.

The pool recently went through a renovation and has been cleaned up and restored. A little curved bridge arcs gracefully over the water, while the center of the pool holds a kinetic sculpture with various components that rotate in the wind. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to see the fountain turned on!

Spanish mission-style arcades frame both sides of the court, the most visible reminder of architect Bertram Goodhue’s 1917 master plan for the campus, which guided the development of campus through the 1920s to the ’40s, before it expanded north across San Pasqual Street. Goodhue was a prolific architect whose romantic interpretation of Spanish Colonial architecture in San Diego’s Balboa Park effectively established it as California’s signature style. In addition to the master plan, Goodhue also designed the physics buildings on the south side of the library court. Later, near the end of his life, Goodhue would design a beloved Los Angeles landmark: the Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles.

Turn north (towards the mountains) and head through the arcade, down the steps and up the grassy mall. On your left will be the Parsons-Gates Hall of Administration, the oldest existing building on campus. A small fountain trickles from the mouth of an elaborately carved head on the front of the stairwell.

8. San Pasqual Walk: Two major pedestrian thoroughfares intersect at this point: east-west San Pasqual Walk and north-south Beckman Mall, which leads back up to the Beckman Auditorium. From here, the peaked roof of the auditorium mimics San Gabriel Peak in the distance.

A grove of eucalyptus trees sits on this spot, as well as a pair of concrete, rectangular lily ponds across the way. In season, lily pads cover the entire surface of the ponds, adorned with gorgeous pink flowers. You might even see a turtle in here; sometimes staff have to relocate them from Throop Garden when they’re cleaning the ponds.

Turn left and head down San Pasqual Walk. The trees here are a very different mix from other parts of campus, with lots of maples and pines mixed in with eucalyptus and oaks. On your left will be a small garden, the Iris Garden, decorated with a tiny sundial in the center. A nearby plaque explains that the irises planted in this garden were used in genetic studies by notable geneticist and Caltech professor Alfred Sturtevant.

9. Calder Arches: Just past the Iris Garden on your left will be a very unique architectural feature. On a bridge linking the two buildings is the Beckman Laboratory of Chemical Synthesis, with its huge arched windows adorned with beautifully carved statuary. The stonework, named for sculptor Alexander Calder, comes from the façade of Throop Hall, the first building on campus. After the building was torn down, the stonework sat in a city yard for over a decade before being restored and mounted on the laboratory bridge.

Above the arches are figures representing, from left to right, Nature, Art, Energy, Science, Imagination, and Law. Between the arches are two pilasters depicting Minerva and Mercury, representing the arts and science, respectively. The façade originally had four pilasters, but only two could fit on the bridge. The other two, representing nature and the law, are in the courtyard just ahead; walk under the bridge and straight across, past the parking lot, where you’ll see them sitting in a planter. In the corner are two more adornments, which would have sat under these pilasters: an open book grasped by a hand, for law, and an eerie depiction of life, death, and eternity, meant to be paired with nature.

In the corner is a short tunnel, which will lead you back to the library court. Head through the tunnel, then make a couple of right turns to proceed down the tree-lined mall behind the library tower.

10. Bechtel Mall: Built as a grand entryway to Caltech in the 1930s, this lovely mall is lined with Spanish mission-style arcades on both sides, framed by buildings that are a mix of the mission-style and stylized Mayan architecture. At the entrance facing Wilson Avenue are twin miniature domes topped with ceramic tile, while the mall itself holds fragrant jacaranda trees.

About halfway down the mall, on the south side, is a small courtyard between the geological sciences buildings decorated with a beautifully carved marble bird bath that was gifted to the geology department. If you continue through the courtyard, you’ll emerge onto a patio overlooking California Boulevard, which is decorated with a minimalist sculpture titled, “Perception,” with an elongated cube suspended over a reflecting pool. A plaque nearby gives a very lengthy description of the significance of the design, but it’s enjoyable just to walk around and admire how the shape of the sculpture changes in the reflection in the water.

Continue to the end of Bechtel Mall and exit onto Wilson Avenue. There’s a landscaped median in the street, with a little walkway cutting down the middle. Cross the street, turn right, continue up Wilson, then turn left onto San Pasqual Street.

11. Bungalow Court: On the northeastern corner of San Pasqual Street and Catalina Avenue is a very cute bungalow court dating from the 1920s. A plaque explains that the buildings were relocated from the corner of Del Mar and Wilson to make way for the construction of the Neuroscience Research Building.

Turn right onto Catalina Avenue and continue north.

12. Catalina Graduate Housing: Past the bungalow court is a large housing complex for graduate students that extends all the way up to Del Mar Boulevard. It’s fairly standard 1980s apartment construction, although what makes it unusual is its rustic architecture style. Between the wood paneling, the stone chimneys adorning the utility buildings in the middle of the courtyards, the wooden bridges, and the maples and pine trees, it looks more like something you’d see at an alpine ski resort than a Southern California college campus.

Continue up Catalina and you’ll reach Del Mar. From here, you can turn left and walk a couple blocks to the shopping district of South Lake Avenue, which holds a Trader Joe’s, some department stores, a bunch of restaurants, and a goofy but rather cute British-themed shopping arcade.

Or, if you want to see a strange bit of Caltech history, continue north on Catalina towards Colorado Boulevard. On your right, at the corner of Green Street, is a picturesque brick building that once housed the regional center of the Office of Naval Research. This building, originally built as a noted interior design studio and showroom in the 1920s, was leased by Caltech during WWII and used for military research during the war. Allegedly, the trigger mechanism for one of the first atomic bombs was fabricated in the building’s garage, facing Catalina. After the war it was turned over to the U.S. Navy, who occupied it through the end of the Cold War. Today, it holds the Madeline Garden restaurant and apartments on the second floor.

(If you want to know more about the history of the building, as well as a bunch of other bizarre history surrounding Caltech, be sure to subscribe to our Patreon, where we have a post detailing some of the strange scientific history of Pasadena.)

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