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Davis, California

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Aggie Icons: The history of UC Davis campus architecture that students know and love

How our agricultural roots and ever-changing history are reflected in our campus buildings 

 

By REBEKA ZELJKO — features@theaggie.org

 

The UC Davis campus has grown tremendously since its founding in 1908, according to the UC Davis website. Over the last century, the campus has developed from a small agricultural branch of UC Berkeley to a leading university with over 35,000 students.

All of this history can be seen in glimpses throughout our campus, with many original buildings retaining the character and iconography that students still resonate with today.

One of these many iconic buildings is the UC Davis water tower. Kevin Miller, head of archives and special collections and the university archivist, said he thinks the symbolism of the water tower is crucial to the Davis identity. 

“Before other things were built, it was really the only thing people would see that would signal there is a university there,” Miller said. “The water tower is like a beacon, you can see it for miles, and that symbolism goes back to our original university history.”

Miller says that the water tower iconography goes hand-in-hand with the Aggie identity. The imagery of the water tower was always embraced by students and the campus culture.

“It was sort of at the center of our campus,” Miller said. “One of the most popular activities during Picnic Day was to climb the water tower and get a 360 view of the campus. There was another time — I think it was around 1928 — when a few students got together in the dead of night […] and painted the Cal Aggie block symbol. It was this unofficial logo, kind of created and embraced by the students.” 

The water tower is a symbol that has followed UC Davis students for generations. Miller said that the structure has always been interconnected with student life on campus. 

“All of the college experience was happening under the watch of this water tower,” Miller said. “Students were really attached to the symbol; it became an icon and a point of pride. It was just part of the UC Davis experience.” 

Over the last century, three iterations of the water tower were built. According to the water tower exhibition website, the original tower stood from 1908 to 1928, standing at 84 feet tall. In 1922, the mid-century water tower stood at 103 feet tall until it was taken down in 1960. In 1957, the modern towers were built and still stand today at 155 feet tall. 

The university’s origins are reflected in other parts of campus as well. Bree Hernandez, a third-year pharmaceutical chemistry major, said she still feels the history around campus. 

“You can drive past the vineyards or drive past fields and say hello to the animals on campus,” Hernandez said. “And there’s also a mix of architecture on campus. A lot of it has a very NorCal and agricultural feel. Dutton Hall has the cool wooden facade next to North and South Halls, which also look like wooden cabins.”

These cabin-like buildings, known as North and South Hall, are among the earliest built on the UC Davis campus. North Hall and South Hall were built in 1908 and 1912, respectively, according to the UC Davis library website. Both originally served as dormitories until they were converted into office buildings in the 1960s. 

America Negrete, a fourth-year wildlife, fish and conservation biology major, said that the architecture of the original halls is cleverly mirrored in nearby Dutton Hall. 

“I really like the look of Dutton Hall and North Hall and how the more modern buildings kind of match the style,” Negrete said. “The outside is very cabin-like and quite different from the other building on campus. It definitely gives off that NorCal feel.”

Negrete appreciates the character of the older structures and the quality it adds to the campus. 

“The fact that we still have original buildings on campus is something that I love,” Negrete said. “They really stand out and cause students to reflect on how small the university used to be, and how much it’s changed since we were founded.”

The Silo is also original and unique to the campus. Hernandez said these buildings are characteristic of the agricultural background that UC Davis is known for.

“The Silo has such a Davis feel,” Hernandez said. “And it’s close to the barns, which all feel like a nod to our agricultural founding, which I like. It makes the campus feel uniquely Davis.”

Originally built in 1909 as a dairy barn, The Silo was one of the first buildings to be constructed on the university campus, according to the UC Davis website. It was later converted into the dining area we are familiar with in 1965.

“Next time you are in Peet’s Coffee, you can think about our origins,” Miller said. “It’s interesting how we have retained characteristics of certain buildings and reimagined them.”

Other reimagined buildings on campus are The Barn and the Bike Barn, located near The Silo. The Barn was built in 1914 to house beef cattle and was converted into an office space in 1968-1969, according to the UC Davis library website. The Bike Barn was originally constructed in 1916 as a judging pavilion but was later changed into a student repair shop for bikes.

“Since its inception, the Bike Barn has grown and changed with the needs of the growing campus community,” the ASUCD Bike Barn website states. “In the early 1980s, the Bike Barn invested in a small fleet of rental bikes to cater to campus visitors and exchange students. Over the past three decades, this fleet has grown and evolved from cruisers to hybrid Biria citi bikes with over 115 straight and drop bar frames available.”

One of the most observable examples of Davis’s growth over time is the architecture of Shields Library. 

“It’s a huge building that’s a Frankenstein of architectural styles, but it’s reflective of our history,” Miller said. “Depending on what side of the library you are standing outside of, you’re faced with a completely different architectural style.” 

The library was built over the course of several decades, according to a timeline on the UC Davis Library website. The first part of the building was completed in 1915 and was replaced by the Reading Room in the 1940s. It was later utilized for training U.S. Army personnel during World War II. The current north wing was completed in 1940. This was followed by the completion of the east wing in 1964, the south wing in 1967 and finally the west wing in 1990. 

Matthew Conner, a librarian in the Student Services Department and author of “The New University Library: 4 Case Studies,” said the library’s architecture has changed over time based on the campus’s needs. 

“While the Shields Library retains its traditional core of the Reading Room, which sits in the library’s original footprint […], the rest of the building has followed a more modern vision that influenced library buildings post-war,” Conner said in an email. “Looking to a more dynamic future, libraries were built to be modular and repurposable with partitions that can be added or removed to create new spaces. The library is actively engaged in this continual revision to continue serving the campus in the future.”

The decades of change and transition that the library has experienced are translated into its architecture.

“There’s a sort of art-deco facade facing the quad and a more modern style in other wings,” Miller said. “There’s this sort of square pane motif at the front of the building and in the windows, which coincides with the design style at the time it was built. All of the wings that were added sort of came together in this beautiful area surrounding the quad, with a beautiful turkey oak tree at the center.”

The UC Davis campus as it stands today is rich with tradition, history and diverse style, reflecting our founding and the generations of students that came before us. 

Written by: Rebeka Zeljko — features@theaggie.org