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Our First Campus Was a Castle

September 6, 2017

The University of California, Merced, was established in 2005 — or so the story goes. The main campus officially opened in September of that year, but that particular reading of history elides a more colorful backstory.

UC Merced didn’t spring into existence when developers broke ground on the main campus. Its founding was a tremendous undertaking that required extensive planning. Most of that planning occurred before the official groundbreaking, and much of it took place on a former Air Force base.

“Castle was the campus in every sense of the word,” said Vice Chancellor for Research & Economic Development Sam Traina, who joined the university in 2002 as founding director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute.

Located in Atwater, some 12 miles east of the main campus, the former Castle Air Force Base was the home of UC Merced from 2002 to 2005. Everyone, from the first cohort of graduate students to the founding chancellor, called Castle home.

Castle was where the founding administrators assembled in 2002; where the founding faculty established their research labs in 2003; where a small cohort of graduate students attended the first classes UC Merced ever offered in 2004; where university librarians staged the books that would become the stacks when the Leo and Dottie Kolligian Library opened in 2005; where the initial undergraduate and graduate curriculum was developed; and where UC Merced became a university.

Before Castle, UC Merced consisted of a few offices scattered throughout the San Joaquin Valley. There were satellites in Bakersfield and Fresno. There was a converted dentist’s office in Merced.

When UC Merced leased Castle in 2000, the university finally had a site that could accommodate students, faculty and staff, even if that campus wasn’t immediately habitable.

“The roof leaked. There were snakes and foxes in the buildings and in the ceiling. There was a men’s room in one corner of Castle where they found an empty beer keg,” said Deputy University Librarian Donald Barclay, who joined UC Merced in 2002 as the second library staff member.

Disarray was to be expected. The site suffered from years of neglect after the military decamped — long before UC Merced was even a glimmer of an idea, Castle was thriving U.S. Air Force base.