Chico State campus is key to town’s history
Who lives in the President’s Mansion? Where did the state get the land for the university? Why can’t we pick one of those pretty roses on campus? Fear not, new student. After a short time living in Chico, you’ll be able to serve as a tour guide to your history-minded guests.
A walk around Chico State University is a veritable walk back in time, as the 114-year-old campus is about as historical you can get on this side of the country. There’s an impressive, Ivy League feel to the buildings, and many of the trees that line the walkways and Big Chico Creek were planted more than a century ago.
Jennifer Holt, currently a curator for the city of Oroville, volunteered a couple of years ago to design a historical tour of the university campus. Last April, as part of Founder’s Week, she walked visitors through the grounds, pointing out highlights.
It was Chico founding father John Bidwell —his name is on everything from the mansion on The Esplanade (which once served as dormitories) to the huge city park—who donated his former cherry orchard as the original eight acres for the campus around 1887, when the California Legislature voted to create a “normal school” (read: teachers’ college) here. Later, in 1910, his widow, Annie Bidwell, donated even more land.
The first structure to be built was Normal Hall, in 1889. When the three-story building burned down in 1927, it was rebuilt as Kendall Hall, which now houses the administrative offices. Kendall Hall and its contemporaries, Trinity, Laxson and Ayres halls, were built in the Romanesque style. Because of all those fires, Colusa Hall, built in 1921, “is the only building that is actually original from that period,” Holt explained.
There’s also a building that used to be known as the President’s Mansion, housing presidents since the 1940s, but retired Robin Wilson was the last president to live there, in 1993. Now, it’s used for receptions and such and named in honor of the late Albert Warrens. Architect Julia Morgan—of Hearst Castle fame—designed the house in 1923.
It’s easy to pick out the utilitarian, box-like buildings that were built in the 1970s. We’ll ignore those. It’s really the “medieval Mediterranean” architecture of Kendall and Trinity Halls, plus Laxson Auditorium, that give the center of campus “more of an Ivy League feeling,” Holt said. Butte Hall and the Whitney Hall residence halls are two of the tallest buildings in Chico, and they’re that tall only because, being on state property, they
were able to skirt city ordinances that limit the number of stories to four.
(One historical note—literally—has been mechanized for more modern times. The bell tower in Kendall Hall used to echo with hand-rung chimes. Now, it’s a recording. We’ll pretend we never heard that.)
Chico State used to be a much more sports-centered campus, Holt relayed, and at one point someone gave the school a real, live mountain lion that was supposed to serve as the Wildcats’ mascot. But in a 1928 basketball game, she said, “it bit the referee and peed on the floor,” thus ending the lion’s illustrious career.
In recent years, the Campus Culture Project was collecting trash and discovered alcohol containers discarded near the creek generations ago, proving that Chico State students have always found a way to make trouble in their leisure time.
Holt said it was after World War II, when enrollment rebounded, that “more students started spending their leisure time off campus the way we do now.”
The school began offering bachelor’s degrees as a four-year school in 1927. In 1972, it morphed from a college to a full-fledged university.
The university has looked to regional history in naming the buildings on campus. Some, like Meriam Library and Kendall, Ayres and Acker halls, are named in honor of prominent citizens once affiliated with the university. The residence halls are named after either mountains—Lassen, Shasta and Whitney—or Native American tribes—Esken, Konkow and Mechoopda.
George Peterson, the grandson of Bidwell’s gardener, donated the university’s rose garden in 1957. Few if any of the original 380 roses are still there, but since then new ones have been donated as memorials to friends and relatives. The school treasures those roses: If you get caught picking one, you’re going to be fined $50.