The History of The Athenaeum

In Ancient Greece, the word Athenaeum referred to buildings dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and in particular to a temple in Athens where poets, philosophers, and orators gathered to read and discuss their work. Over the centuries the term also has applied to numerous academies and learned societies.

Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Moore established the most famous of these, The Athenaeum of London, in 1824. Members included individuals known for their scientific or literary attainments, artists of eminence in all classes of the fine arts, and noblemen and gentlemen distinguished as liberal patrons of science, literature, or the arts.

As early as 1921, George Ellery Hale, renowned astronomer, Caltech trustee, and director of the Mount Wilson Observatory, envisioned an Athenaeum in Pasadena modeled after the club in London. Hale had already spurred intellectual life in the region by bringing former MIT President Arthur A. Noyes and physicist Robert A. Millikan to Caltech. Together this trio positioned the California Institute of Technology as a world-class center for teaching and research in engineering and science. During the 1920s, cultural life also blossomed around two other centers of scholarship in Southern California--the Mount Wilson Observatory and the Huntington Library and Art Gallery.

The three institutions were legally independent, but a friendly association and spirit of cooperation flourished among their permanent staffs and visiting scholars. Hale believed that the club he envisioned would further stimulate friendship and the exchange of ideas among lovers of science, art, and literature.

In 1929, Mr. and Mrs. Allan C. Balch, who strongly supported Hale's idea, presented the Institute with a gift of stocks to establish the club. This gift was converted to $500,000 in cash just before the stock market crash. Thus, at a time when many institutions were short of money, Caltech was able to house The Athenaeum in a magnificent new building, furnished with antiques, and embellished with lovely Mediterranean-style landscaping and tennis courts. The building was designed by Gordon B. Kaufmann, built by William C. Crowell, and landscaped by Florence Yoch and Lucile Council.

The first formal dinner was held on January 15, 1931, with Albert Einstein as one of the important guests. Three Nobel Prize winners, Albert Einstein, Robert A. Millikan, and A. A. Michelson, attended that dinner. Portraits of Hale, Noyes, Millikan, the Balches, and Caltech's past presidents hang in various rooms throughout The Athenaeum.

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