The House as a Home

Richard and Ruth Tolman in the study, which was added in 1936. In order to expand the lot to the south and make room for the study, Richard Tolman purchased the two adjacent lots and moved the neighbouring house (which had belonged to Paul Epstein) fifty feet further south. Picture taken around 1937.

Richard Chace Tolman accepted an appointment as Professor of Physical Chemistry and Mathematical Physics at the California Institute of Technology in 1922 and married Ruth Sherman, then a psychology student working on her doctoral degree, just two years later. The newlyweds moved into what is now known as the Tolman/Bacher House after it was completed in 1926, and they lived in the house together until Richard’s death in 1948 of a stroke. Ruth Tolman continued to live at 345 S. Michigan Avenue until she passed away in 1957.

The house then passed to Robert and Jean Bacher, close friends of the Tolmans, who lived here until 1988 and sold the property to Caltech. Robert had accepted the post of the chairman of the Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy in 1949, moving the Bacher family from Ithaca, New York, where he had been the director of Cornell University’s Laboratory of Nuclear Studies, to Pasadena. Both the Tolman and the Bacher families lived in, cared for, and left their mark on the house over many decades.

The original house, which is largely unaltered, has an L-shaped layout, and was located just two blocks north of Caltech’s campus at the time it was built, at the intersection of South Michigan Avenue and Lura Street. Richard Tolman applied for a building permit on March 9, 1925, specifying the dimensions of the house and listing Bissner and Howard as the architects. Harold Bissner’s Spanish Revival design features a low profile, tiled roof, stucco siding, and rustic wooden beams with wrought iron accents. The main entrance faces east, and a brick path once led across the lawn from Michigan Avenue to the broad wooden front door.

Ruth and Richard Tolman with their dog in the backyard garden, probably in the mid-1930s.

In 1936, ten years after the house was completed, Richard Tolman added a study to the south wing of the house, which also remains intact today. Lovingly referred to as “Tolman’s Folly,” the study could not be accommodated on the original plot owned by the Tolmans. To remedy the lack, Richard purchased the two properties to the south, one of which was owned by Paul S. Epstein, another Caltech professor. Before selling the land again, he had Epstein’s house moved fifty feet further south to allow the study to be constructed.

The study, which was designed by architect Gordon B. Kaufman, was once surrounded by walled gardens to the east and west, and the cozy back yard was enclosed by a curved retaining wall and a free-standing garage. This building had often served as a guest residence for friends and family. A close friend of the Tolmans, J. Robert Oppenheimer stayed here during spring academic quarters throughout the 1930s, when he regularly split his time between Caltech and Berkeley. The Bachers’ daughter, Martha, also lived here for a time.

The Tolmans, Ruth and Richard, standing in front of the blackboard cabinet in the study, which is covered with entropy equations. Picture taken around 1937.
“Richard’s study,” around 1956. Ruth Tolman stands near the bookcases at the south end. The study was added in 1936, ten years after the original house was finished.

Both the Tolmans and the Bachers led very active and social lives, and their home was at the center of many lively evenings and vibrant discussions. At frequent dinner parties thrown by the Tolmans, Ruth would often play the piano accompanied by Frank Oppenheimer on the flute. When the Bachers first visited Pasadena in 1949 to find a place to live, they stayed with Ruth (Richard having passed away the year before), and Robert later recalled, “This visit started a close friendship with Ruth Tolman for both of us, but especially for Jean.”

Backyard, patio, and garden, 1930s. The guest house, converted from an original garage, can be seen on the right hand side. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who split his time between Pasadena and Berkeley and taught at Caltech during spring academic quarters throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, often stayed here. The guest house also served as an apartment for Martha Bacher, daughter of Robert and Jean, for a short time later on.
The Bachers had this swimming pool installed in 1969, after obtaining a promise from President Lee DuBridge two years earlier that their property would not be influenced by the construction of a nearby building for astronomy and astrophysics. When Harold Brown became President in 1969, he reiterated the promise, stating that “the Institute will -- if and when it builds in that area -- work around and not intrude on your property.” (Brown to Bacher, June 11, 1969).

The little house in Pasadena served as both a focus of and a respite from the many academic, administrative, and civic responsibilities of the Tolmans and the Bachers. Author of four textbooks and Dean of the Graduate School from 1938 to 1946, Richard Tolman was greatly admired by students. The architect Harold Bissner recalled in 1981, “I would go down … it was so close to the Institute, only a block or so away … and go into his [Tolman’s] office and his students were gathered around him. He was like a Buddha sitting up there, and they were all cross-legged around in a big circle, goggle-eyed, looking up at the man.” Tolman also held a number of advisory roles relating to national defense and scientific programming. As Vice Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), specializing in armor and ordnance, Tolman worked on rockets and the proximity fuse, among other things. He served as scientific advisor to General Leslie Groves on the Manhattan Project and during the Second World War, he was U.S. advisor to the Combined Policy Committee. Following the war, he became chairman of the Declassification Committee of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commision and chief technical advisor to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC).

Like Tolman, Robert Bacher was an excellent advisor and administrator and held several important positions both at Caltech and as a scientific liaison to the government and private industry. At Los Alamos, he first served as head of the experimental physics department and then as the head of the bomb physics department from 1944 to 1945. After arriving at Caltech in 1949, Bacher remained the chairman of the Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy for thirteen years, at which time he was appointed Caltech’s first Provost in 1962. He also stepped in as Vice President of the Institute in 1969, resigning from both posts in 1970. He was a member of both the U.S. AEC and the UNAEC, and served as a member of the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee (PSAC) well after his retirement.

These photographs were included in an album given to Robert Bacher at a dinner celebrating his retirement as Provost at Caltech on November 19, 1970. The evening consisted of dinner at the Athenaeum, speeches by Jesse Greenstein, Arnold Beckman, and Lee DuBridge, and a musical revue called “The Bacher File,” composed by Professor J. Kent Clark.

Today, the campus has expanded to encompass the Tolman/Bacher House, and, together with the Keck Center, it serves as the headquarters for the Keck Institute of Space Studies. While the kitchen and bedrooms have been converted to offices, the layout of the house, the living room, and the study remain largely unaltered from their original design. Walking through the hallways and arches of the Tolman/Bacher House, one cannot help but be reminded of its onetime residents and the lives they lived within these walls.

Letter from Ruth Tolman to her husband, Richard, on Saturday, April 19, 1930, who has just left on a business trip. The frank discussion of Richard’s colleagues and research, together with Ruth’s heartfelt expressions of affection, reveal the loving and intellectually rich relationship they shared.