Tolman/Bacher House

Architectural Context

When the Tolman/Bacher House was built in 1925, 345 South Michigan Avenue was a cozy home on a shady residential street located just a couple of blocks north of the burgeoning California Institute of Technology. Since that time, Caltech’s campus has grown considerably to envelope the house, which now accommodates the Keck Institute for Space Studies.

Aerial view of the Caltech campus, around 1922. The large building just above the center of the image is Throop Hall, built in 1910 and removed due to earthquake damage in 1971. Gates and Bridge Laboratories are visible behind it. The street running diagonally through the center is California Boulevard, and the edge of Tournament Park can be seen on the left hand side. The plot of land to be purchased by Richard Tolman in 1923 is in the upper right, at the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Lura Street.

Throop University, Caltech’s earliest incarnation, was founded in 1891 by Amos Throop and located at the corner of Fair Oaks Avenue and what is now known as Green Street in Old Pasadena. After partnering with astronomer George E. Hale, Throop moved the campus to its current location in 1910, where it was bounded by California Boulevard, Wilson Avenue, San Pasqual Street, and Holliston Avenue. By the year 1920, when the name was changed to the California Institute of Technology, two buildings stood on the fledgling campus: Throop Hall (which was demolished in 1973 after it was severely damaged in an earthquake), and Gates Chemistry Laboratory. The three sections of the Norman Bridge Laboratory of Physics and the High Voltage Research Laboratory were added between 1922 and 1925, and by the end of the decade they were joined by the William G. Kerckhoff Laboratories of the Biological Sciences, the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, and the Dabney Hall of the Humanities. Aside from Throop Hall, which was the work of architects Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey, the campus Master Plan was designed and carried out by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, a renowned New York architect, and, after his unexpected death in 1924, his associates Mayers, Murray, and Phillip, along with Clarence S. Stein.

Map of Caltech’s campus as of March 22, 1939. With the exception of the Plant Physiology Laboratory, campus is bounded to the north by San Pasqual Street.

The early years of the 1930s saw the establishment of the Athenaeum, Caltech’s iconic faculty club, as well as the undergraduate residences known as the South Houses. Both of these projects, completed in 1930 and 1931, respectively, were designed by Gordon Kaufmann in the Mediterranean Revival style. In 1936, Richard Tolman commissioned Kaufmann to design the study he wanted to add to his residence. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 affected further development plans for Caltech, and some proposed buildings were put on hold for several years. Nevertheless, by 1940 the 30-acre plot of land was home to laboratories and offices for geology and astrophysics, as well as optical and machine shops. Bertram Goodhue’s original concept was nearly complete, save for the large, domed Memorial Building he envisioned to dominate the central courtyard. Although this imposing structure, which would have been capped with a blue-tiled dome and visible from any point on the campus, was never completed, Goodhue’s Spanish-themed original vision was largely realized by the close of the 1930s.

The 1967 Development Plan for Caltech. Beckman Auditorium had just been completed in 1964, and this map shows the proposed location of a new building for Astrophysics where the Beckman Institute now stands.
Current map of Caltech’s campus (March, 2014), including the Keck Center, finished in 2013, and the Tolman/Bacher House.

The first extension of Caltech’s campus north of San Pasqual Street took the form of the unassuming Plant Physiology Laboratory, which later became the Earhart Plant Research Laboratory, or “The Phytotron,” in 1949. These modest greenhouses were quickly overtaken, however, by an ambitious program of campus expansion spearheaded by Caltech’s new president, Lee DuBridge. The 1958 Pereira Luckman Plan proposed that a graduate housing complex, a new engineering building, and several new physical plant buildings all be established on newly-acquired property north of San Pasqual. This northward expansion was not undertaken lightly, President DuBridge calling it a “significant element of this new program.” In 1958, Arnold and Mabel Beckman offered to fund a new auditorium, and the site chosen--on the north-south axis at Constance Street--became a focal point for the northern portion of campus. The Tolman/Bacher House, which had recently passed from Ruth Tolman to the Bachers, nearly met its end during these planning stages, as the original plan called for Michigan Avenue to be moved 25 feet to the west to accommodate the grounds surrounding the new auditorium. When the Pasadena City Planning Commission turned down this plan, the little house remained where it was amidst the rapidly expanding campus presence.

Letter dated March 30, 1967, from President Lee DuBridge to Robert E. Alexander and Associates, architect of the proposed astrophysics building, emphasizing his promise to Robert Bacher that the campus development plan would not encroach on his property.

Beckman Auditorium, which was completed in 1964, was only the first of many campus buildings to surround 345 South Michigan Avenue. In 1967, DuBridge promised Robert Bacher in a letter that a proposed building for astronomy and astrophysics would not encroach on his property, and two years later Harold Brown, his successor as President, urged Bacher to go ahead with his plans to install a swimming pool in the backyard. Robert E. Alexander’s master plan included two massive buildings, Baxter Hall of the Humanities and Social Sciences (completed in 1971) and the Beckman Laboratories of Behavioral Biology (1974), to define the approach to the Beckman Auditorium. Caltech purchased the Tolman/Bacher House in 1988, when the construction of the Beckman Institute was initiated, and for many years afterward the house served as a reception venue. Finally, in 2012, plans commenced to renovate the house, add a second building, and adapt the site to become the headquarters of the Keck Institute for Space Studies.

The Keck Institute for Space Studies, including the historic Tolman/Bacher House and the new Keck Center, completed in 2013 by Lehrer Architects LA.

Today, though its surroundings have changed, the Tolman/Bacher House stands in its original location and qualifies for the National Register of Historic Places. To the west, where a swimming pool and guest house once occupied a secluded backyard, the new W. M. Keck Center blends past and present, bridging the architectural styles of Beckman Institute, the Tolman/Bacher House, and Broad Institute. The Keck Center, which was designed by Lehrer Architects LA and completed at the end of 2013, recently achieved LEED platinum certification and has been recognized by the Pasadena Conservation Society and the West Side Urban Forum.

Architectural Awards



Los Angeles Business Council

Award for 'exceptional contribution' in Sustainable Real Estate category

Engineering News Record

Best of the Best in the Country, Small Projects

City of Pasadena

Historic Preservation Award

Southern California Development Forum

Honor Award

American Institute of Architects - Pasadena Foothill Council

Honor Award for Excellence in Design

United States Green Building Council

LEED Platinum Certification

American Institute of Architects - California Council

Merit Award for Excellence in Design

United States Green Building Council - Los Angeles

Sustainable Innovation Honor Award

Westside Urban Forum

Westside Prize Honor Award