An Ever-Evolving Campus

What was once an infirmary is now a set of classrooms—and vice versa! Over 150 years, the Mills campus has evolved in many different directions.

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By Allison Rost

Like any living organism, a college campus grows and matures over its lifetime, and that is abundantly clear at Mills. Early maps of the current campus, which was established in 1871 after the College’s move from its original location in Benicia, show a much narrower tract of land than what modern-day students might recognize. The wedge of land that hosts today’s only campus entry on Richards Road was not part of that initial purchase, and the southern edge of the Mills property went well beyond the Faculty Village, ending several blocks southwest.

Beyond that, though, how the campus has been used has also evolved in the nearly 150 years since Mills came to Oakland. In the beginning, there was Mills Hall, which served nearly every purpose needed on campus. Today, there are more than 50 buildings and complexes devoted to educating and housing the College’s students and faculty.

The history of how the campus came to be as it is now is a long and storied one—one that we attempt to document over these next three pages. We took a deep dive into the Mills archive and previous issues of the Quarterly, and each of the buildings listed could easily fill an article by itself. (For example, did you know that the delegates to the 1945 San Francisco conference that led to the creation of the United Nations used Carnegie Hall as their official library?)

And that history, as it’s recounted here, doesn’t even discuss several historic buildings that came down over the years, mostly because of structural damage (or the fear of it), such as Tolman House, College Hall, and Nathaniel Gray Hall of Science. Their omission from this piece is simply a matter of space.

A 2008 report titled Celebrating the Cultural Landscape Heritage of Mills College lays out three eras in the evolution of the current campus: 1871–1916, driven by College founders Cyrus and Susan Mills and their partnership with renowned architect Julia Morgan; 1916–1949, characterized by President Aurelia Henry Reinhardt’s work with campus architect Walter Ratcliff, Jr.; and 1949 to present, which has been marked by a variety of leaders and approaches to campus growth. Much like the city and state surrounding it, the one constant at Mills is change.

1916 campus map

1.President’s House: This building started its life as Spring Cottage, which was part of the original property before Mills College relocated to Oakland. It was faculty housing until 1916 when Aurelia Henry Reinhardt commissioned the architects Bakewell & Brown to redesign the building and make it into a home. It’s been relocated twice over its life span, moving to its current location when what’s now the Aron Art Center expanded into a larger footprint.

2. Lisser Hall: This stately building has been a performing-arts facility since its opening in 1901, with several major renovations—including one $12-million overhaul that was completed in 2018.

3. Rothwell Center: While the complex didn’t get its current name until 1969, it took shape in 1916 with the opening of Alumnae Hall, a Julia Morgan-designed building that now serves as the Student Union. In 1923, a gymnasium and an outdoor pool were added to create a U shape, but the gymnasium was later demolished due to earthquake damage. The pool came out as well, later replaced by what is now the Suzanne M. Adams Plaza, accompanied by the seismically-sound structure that contains the Tea Shop and Mail & Copy Center.

4. Larsen House & Ross House. These Victorian cottages were built in approximately 1871 and served as housing in early days for immigrants who worked in the dining halls. The structures were repurposed in the mid-1990s as co-ops for on-campus student living, which they still are today. Larsen House houses the sustainability living and learning community, while Ross provides a quiet living space for residents with disabilities.

5. Mills Hall: In 1871, Mills Hall was Mills College (or Mills Seminary, as it was known then), containing every classroom, office, and dorm room. It even had its own telegraph office! Soon enough, though, the burgeoning school outgrew those French Second Empire-style walls, and new academic and residential buildings popped up to contain the growth. The last students moved out of Mills Hall for its centennial in 1971, and the top two floors were shut down. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 did extensive damage to the building, but after a $5-million revitalization effort, Mills Hall reopened in 1994. It is still the beating heart of campus, containing classrooms, faculty offices, and administrative departments, including the President’s Office.

6. Sage Hall: The only remaining original element of this building, constructed in the late 19th century, is a section of vaulted roof above what’s now the cashier’s office. Sage Hall was the College’s first freestanding library until the collections outgrew the small building just 15 years later, and longtime campus architect Walter Ratcliff, Jr., designed a new administrative structure that basically swallowed it up in the 1920s. That building now houses a number of administrative offices, including human resources and finance.

7. Kapi’olani Cottage: Another Julia Morgan building that was completed in 1909, Kapiolani Cottage (a nod to Cyrus and Susan Mills’ time as missionaries in Hawaii) has served a number of purposes. In its early years, it was the campus infirmary, then it became a residence for missionary travelers and campus caretakers. The cottage now contains offices for the campus architect, sustainability coordinator, and the associate vice president for operations.

Kapi’olani Cottage

8. El Campanil: With its steel-reinforced concrete, Julia Morgan’s first project at the College in 1904 survived the great earthquake two years later, leading to a booming business for its architect. The bells were originally cast for a California display at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

9. Carnegie Hall: Yes, it’s named for that Carnegie, or rather his daughter, Margaret. Andrew crisscrossed the United States in the early 1900s funding library projects, which Mills desperately needed to accommodate its growing library. Designed by Julia Morgan and built in 1906, Carnegie Hall later received multiple additions to augment the expanding collections before they moved to the F.W. Olin Library in 1990. Carnegie—the original building and its extensions—is now home to a number of support offices, such as the registrar and the M Center, which handles student records and accounts.

1949 campus map

1. Julia Morgan School for Girls: The eponymous architect designed the several structures here in 1924 separate from her partnership with Mills, as the grounds along that edge of campus then belonged to the Presbyterian Church Board of Missions of New York. The structure first served as the Ming Quong Home for Chinese Orphans, but then came under the College’s jurisdiction in 1936. Renamed Alderwood Hall and Geranium Cottage, the area became the Graduate House until 1960, an undergraduate dorm for the nine years after that, and later served as the Mills Conference Center. The Julia Morgan School for Girls began a long-term lease of this building complex in 2004.

2. Richards Lodge: This slight structure once marked the campus entrance from Hopkins Street (later MacArthur Boulevard), and it was originally known as the Beulah Lodge. After the College acquired the last western strip of land that comprises the campus as we know it now, the actual gate outside the lodge was dismantled and a new one was constructed right off the street, but the lodge remained and was renamed Richards—along with the gate and entry road—after Grace Camden Richards, who funded the reconfiguration. The lodge now houses the offices of the dance department.

Richards Lodge

3. Music Building: An impressive presence along Richards Road, the Music Building was completed in 1928 with 31,000 square feet of space designed by Walter Ratcliff, Jr., in an elaborate Spanish colonial style. Muralist Raymond Boynton created the vivid frescoes that decorate the walls inside. Those works of art and the building itself were restored in 2008 with a full seismic and accessibility, with the removal of a skylight to improve acoustics and a state-of-the-art sound system.

4. Orchard Meadow & Warren Olney Halls: As many alumnae recall, these were originally three separate residence halls, with Olney completed in 1917, Orchard Hall in 1919, and Meadow Hall in 1921. They were renovated and upgraded over the years, with one big change being the internal joining of all three buildings with a large kitchen and two ornate dining rooms during Walter Ratcliff’s time, and additional updates over the last 25 years.

5. Art Museum/Aron Art Center: What is now a sprawling complex started as just the museum space, then known as the Art Gallery, in 1925. It was originally designed and constructed to face north to better interface with a former streetcar line, as well as with an ornate tower that was never built. Along with a new entry, additional studio spaces were installed, later razed and replaced by the Aron Art Center. The museum itself gained a new wing in the mid-2000s.

6. Reinhardt Alumnae House: As a mid-century modern structure, the RAH stands out on the Mills campus. Built in 1949 in memory of Aurelia Reinhardt, the house has always served as a meeting place for alumnae, who had previously scraped together space in the old gymnasium. Today, members of the Alumnae Relations department share the office space with the AAMC, and events regularly take place in the building’s “living room.”

7. Vera M. Long Building for the Social Sciences: This is one of several structures on campus that began life as a health clinic! The Norman Bridge Health Center opened in 1930 in a building honored for its unique design by the American Institute of Architects. After the health center moved to Cowell, the building became a home for the education department and the Mills College Children’s School. When those relocated to a new complex in 2000, the Social Sciences Division moved in. It took a $3.3-million renovation over the next few years to turn it into the building we know today: the Vera M. Long Building for the Social Sciences.

8. Ethel Moore/Mary Morse: The eventual pair of residence halls atop Prospect Hill grew out of the need to find housing for students displaced by the closing of College Hall, the first Mills dorm, which was torn down as a fire hazard. Ethel Moore came along first in 1926 with a number of patios and a dining room, and Mary Morse followed with a similar layout in 1935. Both buildings still house students, though some areas—like the dining rooms—are no longer in use.

9. Faculty Village: This complex dedicated to housing Mills professors started as a group of nine single-family and duplex homes built between 1928 and 1940. Additional units were later added, and this area still serves the same purpose today.

10. Kimball House: Mills purchased this private home in 1921 and moved it onto campus to serve as the home for the music department. After the Music Building was completed, it was one of several structures to house the social sciences division. It now contains the administrative offices for the Graduate School of Education.

11. Wetmore Lodge: In 1925, a new entry to the Mills campus was constructed on the southern edge of campus and named after Mary Camden Wetmore, Mills Seminary alumna of 1880, whose generosity led to its establishment. Similar to the Richards Gate, which came after it, the Wetmore Gate was accompanied by the Wetmore Lodge. After the Wetmore Gate closed, the Lodge remained, later welcoming young students as the K-3 school and worshippers as the Chapel. It is currently rented out as a performance space to community groups.

Wetmore Lodge
Current-day map

1. Chapel: Built in 1967, this unique structure appears to be floating in a raised garden with views to the trees and a labyrinth beyond.

2. Haas Pavilion: After the original gymnasium was damaged in an earthquake, more space was needed for physical education and dance classes. The pavilion, which was partially constructed underground, opened in 1971 with a large convertible auditorium, several studios and classrooms, and a space for costumes. The nearby soccer fields were added in the 1990s, and the adjoining Trefethen Aquatic Center opened in 1998.

3. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy: This modern building incorporates large expanses of glass, a quartzite stone wall, and a “green” roof—among other innovations that qualified it for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold ranking. It was also at least four times as large as the existing space for the business school in Reinhardt Hall when it opened 10 years ago.

4. F.W. Olin Library: The fourth building to serve as the College’s library, the airy space opened in 1990 with 280 working spaces for students and faculty, as well as a fully automated computer system thanks to the Class of 1939.

5. White/Reinhardt/Ege Halls: When Mills Hall closed to on-campus residents in 1971, those students needed a place to go, so these three new buildings stepped in and took over. White Hall is still partially a residence hall, though it’s also the home for some in the Office for Institutional Advancement. Reinhardt housed the Graduate School of Business until Lokey opened in 2009. Ege is currently rented out as needed to outside organizations such as the Google Applied Machine Learning Institute and Girls Leadership summer camps.

6. Founders’ Commons: After dining in residence halls ended in the mid-to-late 1990s, this hall—built in 1970 to feed residents in White, Reinhardt, and Ege Halls—became the main spot for on-campus meals, with the Tea Shop still providing sustenance when needed.

7. Apartments: Several buildings currently provide on-campus housing to non-traditional students (such as resumers) with unique apartment setups. The first of those was Prospect Hill, which opened in 1993 to 32 students and was situated on Underwood Avenue, which provided another way to access the southern edge of campus from the Richards Gate. The nearby Courtyard Townhouses—comprised of Danforth, Stephenson, and Springs Houses—were dedicated in 2006 to house an additional 95 undergraduates over the age of 21 and graduate students.

8. Cowell Building: While originally built as a health center/hospital complex in 1966, this is now the spot where you can find the Dean of Students and a whole slew of student services.

9. Lucie Stern Hall: This unique building was constructed in 1965 as a lecture hall with four seminar rooms. It now houses the College’s IT department, and its classrooms have been outfitted with the latest in computer technology for instructional purposes.

10. Betty Irene Moore Natural Sciences Building (NSB): This complex is an amalgamation of several structures—several classroom wings from the 1940s, a larger building with labs and research facilities from the early 1980s, and a 26,000 square-foot facility that replaced the main entrance and opened in 2007. It was the first construction on campus to earn the LEED platinum certification, which it did with eco-friendly features, including a rainwater reuse system.

11. CPM: While this 1971 building was named for the three departments it initially contained—chemistry, physics, and math—it more accurately would be called the M today! Chemistry and physics moved to NSB’s expanded space in 2007, leaving classrooms and offices for the Department of Public Safety and student health as well as the Mills Children’s School and the book art program.

12. Education Complex/Children’s School: Dedicated in 2000, this series of buildings not only allowed Mills to increase enrollment in the popular educational leadership doctoral program, but it reflected a Spanish “revival” style to match much of the rest of campus.

Thank you to Library Director Janice Braun, Campus Architect Karen Fiene, and Vice President for Strategic Partnerships Renee Jadushlever for their help in researching this history.