Framed: Pitzer College is quintessentially Californian

Two chairs sit on Pitzer College's lawn
Art columnist Frances Sutton PO ’21 digs into Pitzer College’s ultimate architectural embodiment of Californian culture and style. (Yasmín Elqutami • The Student Life)

Plastered with clear blue skies and palm trees, the Claremont Colleges’ brochures and websites offer ample evidence that the 7Cs pride themselves on being Californian. One school, however, embodies Californian culture and style more than the others: Pitzer College.

Progressivism, environmentalism and an appreciation for the community and the arts are among the most publicized and proclaimed values of Pitzer. They are also values closely associated with California, whether in the state’s politics, media or art.

What could be more quintessentially Californian than kids lounging in hammocks under the shade of palm trees? Or balconies surrounding a turquoise pool with a craggy desert mountain backdrop? 

Pitzer’s classic Californian vibes are largely due to how the campus’ architecture is closely integrated with the natural environment. Key architectural features of the campus include native and drought-resistant landscaping, as well as plentiful indoor-outdoor spaces. There is also an emphasis on sustainability and an overall contemporary style that was heavily influenced by the California modernist movement.

Pitzer is the final installation of this campus architecture series, as it was the final college to join the Claremont consortium. In 1963, Pitzer was founded as a women’s college; it became coeducational in 1970. Russell K. Pitzer, a Pomona College alumnus and citrus magnate — Pomona Valley, like other places in Southern California, was once covered in miles of orange groves — took the lead in establishing the school. The campus’ first two buildings, Scott and Sanborn Halls, were constructed “just in time” for the first semester.

At the turn of the century, Pitzer began to reimagine its campus, creating a master plan that, according to the school’s website, featured “residence halls designed with both architectural flair and eco-friendly features.” The school now frequently touts its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certifications and environmental awards

Buildings are not the only representations of Pitzer’s longtime commitment to the environment. Its arboretum has protected indigenous vegetation for decades, including riparian, desert, chaparral, grasslands, oak woodlands and coastal sage scrub ecosystems.

Other Claremont Colleges are recognizable for their emerald green lawns and leafy, shade-giving trees — beautiful but unnatural in the Southern Californian landscape. At Pitzer, much of the landscaping is governed by the idea of xeriscaping, or landscape design that minimizes or eliminates the need for irrigation. 

During my first year in Claremont, I heard cautionary tales of taking inebriated nighttime treks through Pitzer’s campus: The sheer number of prickly native cacti that line the walkways of campus pose a serious safety hazard for the uncoordinated. The campus itself has also been a source of disapproval, and some of the dorms are rundown, evoking roadside motels with cinder blocks and dingy balconies. The school has even been featured on lists of ugly campuses (though not rated as ugly as Harvey Mudd College). 

Most of the campus’ style is influenced by Californian mid-century design aesthetics, such as simple lines, stylistic integration with nature, geometric shapes and minimal ornamentation. However, other architectural styles also prevail. 

The Grove House, for example, is a popular spot to hang out at on campus; the bungalow houses a cafe and frequent Groove at the Grove parties. It was built in 1902, at the peak of the Arts and Crafts movement. It’s similar to the many other typical Arts and Crafts bungalows in Claremont that are characterized by the use of shingles, river rocks or stone, porches and stucco.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Pitzer’s campus architecture is not the design itself but the art that adorns it. Throughout the campus, student and community-made murals cover exterior walls. The murals’ topics range from self-referential poetry to nonviolent resistance, from cultural appropriation to Indigenous narratives

Displays of public art and the overarching campus design represent the best parts of Pitzer: a school that prides itself on valuing the natural environment and prioritizing activism.

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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