Our Story Since 1947: From Rented Rooms to Regional Powerhouse

From an austere landscape, the Sac State campus has developed into a lush urban forest
From an austere landscape, the Sac State
campus has developed into a lush urban forest.

Sacramento State College was on the move after spending its first five years in rented quarters at Sacramento Junior College on Freeport Boulevard.

On Feb. 9, 1953, President Guy West led a parade of 150 gaily decorated vehicles – loaded down with students, faculty, staff, textbooks, and furniture – through downtown and eastward to the permanent campus site between the Union Pacific railroad tracks and American River. The day's cheer was "Go East with West!"

The State of California had paid $1,650 to $1,800 per acre for the 300-acre White & Terry Tract – with its vast hops fields and peach orchard – to build a campus for Sacramento State College. Long before that, and for thousands of years, the Nisenan Maidu had occupied a village called Kadema (for which the Department of Art's building is named) on the site.


Somewhere along the parade route on that February day, Gov. Earl Warren abandoned his chauffeured limousine and climbed into President West's car.

When the rowdy caravan arrived, the band of Hornets and California's governor saw several new campus buildings, including what are now called Sacramento, Lassen, and Douglass halls (all outfitted with furniture built by inmates at San Quentin State Prison), the Food Service Building, three small science buildings, and a greenhouse beside the river levee. Mostly they saw 300 acres of bare dirt.

Lawn sprinklers wouldn't be installed for several months and, without grass, the campus was either a dustbowl or a mucky mess, depending on the weather.

"The campus was a sea of mud in the first winter. Some faculty wore boots to work and changed shoes before going to class. Faculty, staff, and students had to park in unfinished parking lots, and their cars often got stuck in the mud," George S. Craft wrote in California State University Sacramento: The First 40 Years, 1947-1987. "One student in the first weeks apparently lost his way one evening on the poorly marked roads. Early arrivals on campus the next morning confronted the sight of his car up to its hubcaps in the mud in the middle of the unfinished main quadrangle."

Like so many others that winter, the student's car had to be "winched out by a tow truck."

Growing pains, a growing forest, and jackrabbits

Sac State, which would become a full-fledged university in 1972, went through growing pains during its first year at 6000 J St. Termites were a terrible problem, as was the prison-made furniture. So many chairs fell apart that administrators returned them to San Quentin for repairs. And then there were the jackrabbits.

Grounds crews started planting 3,000 trees and shrubs in fall 1953, with President West spading dirt for the first sapling. A marauding band of native jackrabbits would eat the tender saplings almost as soon as they were put into the ground.

"To solve the problem," Craft wrote, "college authorities invited faculty and staff to take part in jackrabbit hunts. The college provided the ammunition, but it asked the volunteer hunters to bring their own shotguns. Having served their purpose, the hunts ended late in the fall semester. The plants began to take root, and already by the spring of 1954, the site of the college resembled a true college campus."

Today, Sac State's beautiful urban forest boasts more than 3,500 trees that shade the main campus, University Arboretum and Alumni Grove. The most common of the 400 species are coast redwoods and Zelkova elms, which, along with some 20 species of oak and pine, are scattered across 170 landscaped acres. The widest range of diverse plantings are in University Arboretum and the Sokiku Nakatani Tea Room's garden, in front of the University Library.

In 2012, the Arbor Day Foundation first designated Sacramento State a Tree Campus USA, making it just the sixth California university to be so honored. The University's status has been renewed every year since.

State Sen. Earl Desmond fathered the 1947 legislation that established Sacramento State College. He was so determined that Sacramento have an accredited four-year college that he persuaded the Senate finance committee to withhold funding for the University of California until he had a commitment.

Eleven of Desmond's children and grandchildren would graduate from Sacramento State, and hundreds of students over the years have lived in the campus residence hall that bears his name.

Sacramento Junior College (now Sacramento City College) had "rooms to rent" in 1947, because its enrollment hadn't returned to pre-World War II levels. So, the brand-new Sacramento State College moved into its temporary quarters in September 1947.

Sacramento State College offered just 44 classes to 235 students in its inaugural semester. The first to enroll was education major David Morse, who went on to have a long career as a high school teacher and counselor. He also served as the Alumni Association's first president. Morse's grandson Grant Morse enrolled at Sac State as a freshman in fall 2014.

Guy West, a dean at Chico State College, had been persuaded by his friend Aubrey Douglass, California's associate superintendent of education under Gov. Warren (and the namesake of Sac State's Douglass Hall) to leave Chico and its proximity to great fly-fishing, and take the helm of Sacramento's fledgling four-year college. West would serve as Sac State's president until his retirement in 1965.

West returned to the campus in 1967 for the dedication of the Golden Gate Bridge replica built spanning the American River by the men who developed Campus Commons – and named for him. The developers donated the bike-and-pedestrian suspension bridge to the City of Sacramento and, in 2014, the City spent $3.2 million on a project to restore and repaint the iconic Guy West Bridge.

Key Dates

1947 Sacramento State College opens with classes at Sacramento Junior College

1953 Sac State moves to its permanent site at 6000 J St.

1967 The Guy West Bridge, named for Sac State's first president, is dedicated

1972 Sac State becomes a full-fledged university

2003 Alexander Gonzalez is appointed Sac State's president

2012 Sac State earns the Tree Campus USA designation from the Arbor Day Foundation

2014 Fall enrollment reaches 29,000 with the largest freshman class ever: 3,700 students

2015 Groundbreaking for the first building in the new campus Master Plan: a residence hall overlooking the American River

2015 Alexander Gonzalez retires; Robert S. Nelsen becomes Sac State's eighth permanent president

More students, more buildings, and a new name

Filmmaker and Sacramento State alumnus Ryan Coogler.
Filmmaker and Sacramento State alumnus Ryan Coogler.

Sacramento State College's enrollment grew 47 percent following the end of the Korean War, with hundreds of former soldiers attending school on the GI Bill. Enrollment reached 4,200 by 1961. By the mid-1950s, additional campus buildings were completed, housing such disciplines as social sciences, life sciences, business, and education. The south gym and Draper, Foley, and Jenkins residence halls were open by 1959. The north gym opened in 1962, and what is now called Sequoia Hall first was occupied in 1967.

The school officially became California State University, Sacramento – now better known as Sacramento State and Sac State – in 1972, when enrollment totaled 18,202. Three years later, enrollment exceeded 20,000 for the first time. That figure now tops 30,000.

The University's first celebrity student was Lorna Anderson, Miss California 1957. By the time she entered Sacramento State College that year as a freshman, she had won crowns as Miss Sacramento and Maid of California. The "honey-haired Lorna," as she was known by admirers, was third runner-up at the 1958 Miss America pageant. She graduated in 1960 with a bachelor's degree in education.

One of Sac State's most distinguished graduates is the world-renowned painter Wayne Thiebaud, who earned his undergraduate (1951) and master's (1953) degrees in art before becoming a longtime art teacher at UC Davis. Sac State later awarded him an honorary doctorate in fine art.

Thiebaud recalled the early days of Sacramento State College when he was an undergraduate:

"We were on the grounds of the city college, and I was able to teach and go to school," Thiebaud said in a 2007 interview with Sac State Magazine. "The faculty were very generous – Robert Else, James McMenamin, Paul Beckman, Tarmo Pasto. They even let me help teach a little bit. Sac State offered me the wonderful opportunity to go to school, even after I had graduated, and take classes in literature, philosophy, anthropology, and music. It helped me to develop intellectually and be constantly challenged."

In 2007, anonymous donors gave Sacramento State a collection of 150 works on paper representing Thiebaud's printmaking between 1948 and 2004. The Wayne Thiebaud Collection of Prints is housed in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives – and is available for loan under the Sacramento State banner. In 2014, the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University displayed 85 prints and drawings from the collection.

Sacramento State boasts nearly 220,000 proud alumni. The Made at Sac State campaign, launched in 2012, celebrates the University's impact and success through the inspirational stories of its alumni, including NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, renowned painter Gregory Kondos, video game entrepreneur Mark Otero, award-winning filmmaker Ryan Coogler (pictured), Sleep Train Mattress Centers founder Dale Carlsen, operatic baritone Eugene Villanueva, former Sacramento County district attorney Jan Scully, and former Sacramento Bee publisher Cheryl Dell.

Read their stories and learn more about Made at Sac State at www.csus.edu/made. – Dixie Reid