A Most Suitable Land—

Building Cal Poly

By Laura Sorvetti

In 1902, when the Trustees of Cal Poly were tasked with selecting the site for the new school, the nature and mission of that school was foremost in their minds. The 281 acres of ranch land they selected were deemed “most suitable” for the agricultural and vocational aims of the campus. A commitment to the Learn by Doing philosophy has always been at the core of campus growth and development.

Over the past century, Cal Poly has indeed grown, into a campus of nearly 10,000 acres with more than 360 buildings to support more than 20,000 students. Historical records from the University Archives reveal the development of campus as it was shaped by the actions of administrators, students, faculty, alumni and community.

Timeline: A Changing Campus

1900 – 1930s
In 1902, the first acres of land 1 are purchased at the edge of San Luis Obispo, along the Southern Pacific Railroad. The site features prime agricultural land and access to water. The first buildings 2 are designed for a high school age co-educational student body, enrolled in two- and three-year vocational programs in agriculture, mechanics and household arts. The majority of the buildings are agricultural, as well as labs and workspaces for students to practice hands-on learning. Enrollment and campus growth slows. By 1930, only men are enrolled, and women’s dorms and classrooms are repurposed.
1940s-1950s
After World War II, campus rapidly expands in enrollment, curricular offerings and the physical plant. Enrollment more than doubles in three years, demanding more on-campus housing (including for married veterans). Over 60 new facilities are constructed, including 1 Dexter Library, 2 the mountain residence halls and numerous academic buildings. The 1949 Master Plan for Cal Poly predicts an enrollment of 4,080. Enrollment of women students after nearly 30 years necessitates new dorms and additional facilities.
1960s – 1980s
Campus continues to expand and change. The 1963 Master Plan prepares for a growth to 12,000 students over the next 15 years. The University Union and a new 1 Administration Building, as well as the addition of several new dormitories, shifts the center of campus easterly. Student projects fill Poly Canyon. Brutalist and late international style buildings like the 2 University Union and 3 Kennedy Library are constructed.
1990s – present
Swanton Pacific Ranch in Santa Cruz County is donated by alumnus Al Smith in 1993, increasing the campus by 3,200 acres. After several revisions to the 1962 Master Plan, a new Master Plan is proposed and approved in 2001, projecting the next 20 years of campus growth. The 1 Performing Arts Center and the 2 Recreation Center open. New dormitories are constructed near Poly Canyon and at the Grand Avenue entrance. New laboratories, athletic facilities and buildings are constructed with generous donations from alumni and campus supporters. With the opening of the 3 Baker Center for Science and Mathematics in 2013, Cal Poly completes most of the projects planned in 2001, launching a new Master Plan process looking forward to 2022.

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