Framed: Why is Scripps College’s campus so beautiful?

A fountain sits in the middle of a patio surrounded by plants, white stucco walls and arches.
The Spanish Colonial Revival buildings, landscaping, and overall style of the campus make Scripps College feel more like a resort than an academic institution. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

“Wait, are we in Italy or something? This is so beautiful!”

Based on extremely accurate personal anecdotal research, this is by far the most common phrase uttered when visitors stroll onto the Scripps College campus for the first time, smelling the orange blossoms, hearing the bubbling tiled fountains and contemplating the backdrop of mountains from a balcony. 

Founded in 1926 and designed by architect Gordon Kaufmann, the Spanish Colonial Revival buildings, courtyards and landscaping of Scripps are so pleasant, lush and calm that it can seem more like a resort than an academic institution. In fact, Kaufmann also designed the famed La Quinta resort, located in the desert near Palm Springs, around the same time that he worked on Scripps. 

Scripps is a historically women’s college. Its campus was designed for women. It is no accident that it looks the way it does: a lovely, pretty oasis removed and protected from the outside world. 

Scripps was founded by philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps in 1926 at the urging of former Pomona College President James Blaisdell. It was built in the early 20th century Spanish Colonial Revival style, which is characterized by white stucco walls, red terracotta roofs, painted tiles, curves and arches and an overall influence of Spanish colonial architecture. In Santa Barbara, for example, the county courthouse (built in 1929) is a famous example of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture that plays off of the Spanish architecture of the city’s original mission.

According to historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, who writes about American women’s colleges, the original Scripps trustees deliberately chose to build their school in this more “Californian” style. This decision set Scripps apart in two key ways: first, it recognized the Spanish and Mexican heritage of Southern California, and second, it broke away from the traditional “collegiate Gothic” architecture of most men’s or coeducational schools. 

While building Scripps’ campus, much of the planning was overtly based on gendered norms and expectations. The trustees (a group of men and women) agreed, according to Horowitz, that the architect they chose should be based on Kaufmann’s ability to “give the dormitories the appearance and atmosphere of a beautiful home.” They also, significantly, built the first residence hall — Toll Hall — before any other academic buildings or libraries; those could come later, but “young women needed the supervision and the common life of a college dormitory.”

Moreover, the plan for the campus and its buildings underscored antiquated notions that women should be enclosed and protected in domestic settings. 

The many courtyards, buildings and Mediterrean style landscaping have an intimate feel which is heightened by the stucco walls and wrought iron gates that encircle Scripps’ perimeter, making the campus almost like a large courtyard itself, according to Horowitz. The dorms drew heavily on stereotypically domestic imagery; the small individual rooms upstairs and the large living rooms downstairs encourage socialization only in public, supervised areas.

The trustees even drew explicit comparisons between the architecture of Pomona and Scripps; Horowitz wrote that they criticized the “early Republican style” of Pomona’s library for being “too masculine.” The descriptions of Scripps, on the other hand, were flowery and luscious: the new campus was “a world of vast bright spaces, where the air is flooded with latent color, where the background is a near wall of shining mountains, and the atmosphere most of the time is a brooding silence … a strange blend of dreaminess and alertness, of brilliancy with pose.”

In the 1920s, that kind of gendered, even misogynistic, language was probably to be expected, although it may still seem surprising in 2020. What’s more interesting now is that the college continues this legacy — albeit in a much more subtle way — by placing such a high premium on beauty.

The College’s website touts the beauty of its campus, saying, “Scripps’ 32-acre campus is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is widely recognized as one of the most beautiful college campuses in the world. The College is regularly featured as one of America’s most beautiful college campuses in national publications, including Forbes, Princeton Review, Business Insider, and Travel & Leisure magazine.”

Beauty, prettiness, loveliness; these are all traits historically associated with women and femininity to an unreasonable, unfairly high standard. And dated patriarchal standards aren’t the only problematic thing about Scripps’ campus: “winding stairways and hidden courtyards” mean that Scripps “isn’t a very accessible campus,” noted Claire Payne SC ’21 in an interview with TSL. Furthermore, “The Spanish architecture is a mark of the violence done to the Indigenous people who lived here before it was Claremont,” Payne said. 

It’s imperative to talk about the problematic points in our schools’ histories and the way that history still affects students’ day-to-day lives. The question of how to reconcile a complicated past with the affection and admiration we have for Scripps’ beautiful campus has no easy answer.

Scripps was meant to be the “feminine” foil to Pomona’s “masculine.” While this binary is obviously outdated, there remain important distinctions between the two schools, key to their identities as separate but connected communities. Difficult questions arise: Should a women’s college look the same as a coeducational college? How much does the outward appearance of a college matter? And how can architecture influence, or even define, a community’s identity? 

“Scripps’ campus is super special,” Hanna Kim SC ’21 said. “As a student, the dorms’ architecture makes you feel at peace.”

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong — and perhaps a lot right — with a beautiful campus. Recognition of Scripps’ occasionally murky history is by no means mutually exclusive with appreciation for the undeniably stunning campus that Scripps students call home.

Frances Sutton PO ’21 is TSL’s art columnist. She is an art history major who enjoys sewing and attempting to convince people that her hometown of San Francisco is the best city in the world. 

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