Photos from the Vault

Cal Poly’s Fremont Hall, named for famed explorer, reflected a period of rapid change

Cal Poly campus aerial from Telegram-Tribune dated April 26, 1962.
Cal Poly campus aerial from Telegram-Tribune dated April 26, 1962. Telegram-Tribune

Explorer, U.S. Army officer and politician John C. Frémont scattered his name on landmarks across the West.

He arrived in San Luis Obispo in 1846, a famed explorer leading a military expedition of volunteers fighting Mexican authority over California. Frémont would briefly be military governor of California before his failure to follow military protocol would land him before a court martial.

Frémont’s life was a mixture of great success and failure.

His five expeditions and reports captured the imagination of a restless nation, and his work mapped paths that multitudes followed heading west to Oregon and California.

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However, an ill-advised 1848-49 winter crossing of the Rocky Mountains was a disaster. His fourth expedition, in southern Colorado, resulted in more than one-third of his party of 33 dying of starvation, hypothermia and murder.

Frémont was a staunch anti-slavery advocate and in 1856 was the first Republican presidential candidate, the election before Lincoln won.

Two landmark buildings in San Luis Obispo bear his name: an art deco movie palace and a dormitory at Cal Poly.

In the tradition of the namesake explorer, Fremont Hall is on the frontier edge of campus, at the foot of the Santa Lucia mountain range. Fremont was one of six brick dorms built in 1958-59.

The 1950s were a time of rapid change, and Cal Poly would reflect that.

Other headlines from the era: In September 1958, Highway 101 in Paso Robles was under construction, Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base) was spending $100 million expanding missile research and Los Angeles recorded the worst smog in its history.

In Little Rock, Arkansas, Gov. Orval Faubus closed four high schools to prevent black students from entering. The previous year, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered troops from the 101st Airborne Division to protect black students attempting to enter school. In December 1959, the Supreme Court ruled that the school board must reopen the schools and desegregate.

In September 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited San Luis Obispo by rail and walked among residents at the train station.

Cal Poly responded to an explosive California population growth by embarking on its largest building program with the help of state bond money.

The college had enrolled 819 men in 1945-46. In fewer than 15 years, the school grew more than fivefold. By Sept. 22, 1959, the college had 4,384 students registered, including 608 “coeds.” Women had returned to Cal Poly in 1956 after a 27-year absence.

Dorms began to be built in 1953, with the addition of the North Mountain dorms (Diablo, Lassen, Palomar, Shasta and Whitney).

In 1958, Cal Poly celebrated 55 years of operation and was growing in San Luis Obispo (with sister campuses at Pomona and San Dimas.) One year later, a San Luis Obispo map of the campus called Cal Poly “one of the few resident campuses in the State system.”

Until then, it had relied largely on trailers (Silver City) and World War II-era barracks-style dorms (Vetville).

A Sept. 26, 1958, Telegram-Tribune story noted that Silver City was being replaced by six three-story brick dorms, each with 100 two-occupant rooms. The dorms were designed with a laundry, kitchenette, lounges and recreation room on the ground floor. Each floor of each wing had a bathroom, and the six buildings were estimated to cost more than $3 million.

Four of the halls were for men and two for women. They were financed by a combination of federal loans and state bond money.

As the 1950s came to a close, Cal Poly built the agriculture, home economics and mathematics buildings, Mott Gym, student health services and six brick dorms, including Fremont Hall, at a price tag of about $11 million.

The Fremont dorm is the only one without a parking lot or a dorm uphill; a 1962 aerial photo shows the hillside sloped back in a semicircle from the dorm.

Last month, rain saturated that hillside, causing it to slide. Fremont Hall was evacuated and closed for the rest of the academic year.

More dorms and classrooms followed the 1950s building boom. Currently, Cal Poly is building dorms at the corner of Slack Street and Grand Avenue with 1,475 beds and an adjacent four-level parking structure. The $198 million project is expected to be finished in summer 2018.

Cal Poly enrolled 21,306 students in Fall 2016 and, with about 3,000 employees, has a total population of 24,360. That’s the population equivalent of the fourth-largest city in San Luis Obispo County, ahead of Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp.

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