For nearly 85 years, the House system at Caltech has played a critical role in undergraduate social and residential life. In 2002, Ted Jou (BS ’03) wrote “A History of Undergraduate Self-Governance at Caltech” for a Student Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) project, which, among other things, outlined the origins of Caltech as a residential college. Excerpts from his paper tell the tale of the first four Houses (or Hovses, as inscribed on the actual buildings).

On his seventy-fourth birthday, the President of the Caltech Board of Trustees, Arthur H. Fleming, was surprised with the announcement that the last unit of the new student dormitories would be named in his honor. In 1930, twenty donors gave $10,000 each to fund the construction of Fleming House, and a new era in Caltech undergraduate student life was born.

Before that time, there was only room for about 60 students on campus in a single dormitory. Caltech students were spread throughout a variety of off-campus housing, which included five fraternity houses: Sigma Alpha Pi (est. 1914), Pi Alpha Tau (est. 1921), Gamma Sigma (est. 1925), Kappa Gamma a.k.a. Gnome (est. 1897), and Phi Alpha Ro a.k.a. Pharos (est. 1921). This still left about 350 of the enrolled undergraduates living in their own housing. The trustees decided that Caltech should seek to house as many of its students on campus as possible so a plan for a group of four undergraduate dorms was drafted. Construction began as soon as $200,000 per dorm was raised. On March 11, 1930, the California Tech proclaimed, “Dorms Will Rise at Once!”

A committee of nine students was formed to investigate student living conditions and make detailed recommendations for the conduct and organization of the new undergraduate dormitories. Members of the committee toured the U.S., Europe, and Canada to find out what organization would be best for the student residences. On March 5, 1931, they published their findings in the California Tech. Their recommendations formed the foundation for the undergraduate Houses at Caltech, and many of their ideals hold true today. Here are some highlights from their report:

  • “Freshmen shall be distributed among the four houses as equally as possible.”
  • “Choice of rooms in each house shall be given according to seniority.”
  • “Students shall be given the opportunity to wait on tables.”
  • “Conduct of house functions and the maintenance of order shall be placed entirely in the hands of the students.”
  • “Social affairs and the entertainment of visitors should be strongly encouraged.”
  • “Inter-house and intra-house competitions should be fostered.”

The fraternities at Caltech all agreed to the recommendations with very little resistance and the next year, they each moved as groups into the four new Houses. The Gnomes moved into Ricketts House, the Pharos moved into Blacker, the Gamma Sigmas moved into Dabney, and Pi Alpha Tau, the smallest fraternity, joined Sigma Alpha Pi in colonizing Fleming.

Since the early 1930s, the four Houses have grown to eight, with Lloyd, Page, and Ruddock Houses coming on board in 1960, and Avery House—built in 1996— joining the roster of undergraduate-only student residences in 2005.

Header image courtesy of the Caltech Archives