• Commencement on the steps of Gates Laboratory of Chemistry, 1917
    Credit: Caltech Archives

New Exhibit Documents the History of Caltech's Oldest Building

Now in its centennial year, the former Gates Laboratory of Chemistry was the first home of what has become the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering

Featuring blueprints drafted in 1915, dissertations written by the first male and female students to earn PhDs at Caltech, a pH meter designed by Arnold Beckman, and other historical images, documents, and artifacts, a new display celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Gates Laboratory of Chemistry, which eventually became the Parsons-Gates Hall of Administration.

The building, opened in 1917, is the oldest on campus and the first to cross the hundred-year threshold. Originally constructed as a means to pursuade chemist Arthur A. Noyes to come to Pasadena, the Gates Laboratory of Chemistry was the first home of what would become Caltech's Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (CCE).

"Having an exhibit about a building displayed in that same building allows viewers to see how it has changed over time, and to remember the innovative chemists who walked the same halls decades earlier," says Peter Collopy, Caltech's archivist and head of special collections.

The first display, "Story of a Building," traces the construction of the former laboratory building, which was funded by brothers and lumber magnates Charles Warner Gates and Peter Goddard Gates. Gates Laboratory of Chemistry remained a hub of research and teaching until the 1971 San Fernando earthquake left it so badly damaged that it had to be shuttered. The building remained empty for nearly a decade until funding from the Ralph M. Parsons and James Irvine foundations made possible its renovation as an administrative center. The building reopened in 1983.

The second display, "Building a Division," focuses on some of the individuals whose work has made an impact on CCE and on the field of chemistry over the past century, starting with scientists who worked in the former Gates Laboratory of Chemistry. The display includes an image of Arthur A. Noyes; notes and sketches by Linus Pauling; a quotation from Caltech's first female graduate student, Dorothy Semenow; and a replica of Ahmed Zewail's Nobel medal.

The exhibit, comprising two display cases on the second floor of Parsons-Gates, can be visited Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. A digital version of the exhibit can be viewed online: Story of a Building and Building a Division.

For more information on Caltech's history, visit the Institute's interactive history map and the Caltech Archives.

Written by Jennifer Torres Siders