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Caltech's 'Ath': Where the Smart Set Goes to Eat


Twelve years ago, Able R. Ramirez and his linen supplier made a startling discovery.

Napkins from the Athenaeum, the fancy faculty club Ramirez runs at the California Institute of Technology, were coming back defiled with nasty ink stains, faint outlines of equations, computations and explanations.

Ramirez promptly ordered paper napkins and place mats for lunchtime use. He also realized that Caltech's Athenaeum is no ordinary eating place.

Quite simply, Caltech registrar and archivist Judith R. Goodstein declared over lunch there the other day, the Athenaeum is "the best faculty club dining room in the country."

Whether that is an outright boast or simply a scientific fact, the "Ath"--as insiders call it--is as quirky, intimate, sophisticated and brainy as Caltech itself.

Set back behind eucalyptus, palm and olive trees and with a sign that says "Members Only," the Athenaeum anchors the corner of Hill Avenue and California Boulevard on the tony side of Pasadena next to exclusive San Marino.

The building is designed in a style known as Californian, made popular in the 1920s. It has an Italian villa look, with buff-colored masonry walls, a red-tile roof and Andalusian-style black wrought iron over huge, arched windows.

A drive-through porte cochere commands one entrance, where Roman numerals over the door mark the construction date of 1930. An olive tree-lined brick walkway leads to a courtyard entrance.

Inside, a clubby atmosphere prevails in spacious lounges and dining rooms. It is a world of marble, brass, burnished oak and black walnut, heavy antique furniture, high ceilings, collegiality and conviviality.

No money changes hands except when monthly bills come due. Members order by filling out chits and handing them to waiters, usually undergraduates who wear badges with their first name and major. (For instance, Hsiao-Mathematics and Jason-Chemistry.)

The club derives its name from Athena, goddess of wisdom, and is modeled on London's Athenaeum Club.

But there are no paintings of red-coated fox hunters here. Rather, there is a portrait of a stern-faced Caltech founder, Nobel laureate Robert A. Millikan, that includes a chalkboard diagram spelling out the celebrated "oil drop" experiment in which he measured the fundamental charge of an electron.

"Many, if not most, of the Nobel Prize winners in science have visited or stayed," says a Caltech leaflet.

Upstairs, the club has 29 guest rooms. The most expensive is the $75-a-day Einstein Suite, said Ramirez, a native of the Yucatan who has many an engaging story about the establishment he oversees. He opened the door to the suite, No. 20, where a tiny but comfortable sitting room with a fireplace leads to a spacious porch and small bedroom.

In recent years, Britain's Prince Philip used the suite as an afternoon spot to freshen up. (Ramirez had readied the room for tea, only to find out the prince prefers gin.) The writer Lawrence Durrell slept there--and, of course, so did Einstein, for weeks at a time in the 1930s.

Downstairs, a photographic pantheon of Caltech Nobel laureates--including Linus Pauling, Richard P. Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann--peers down from the walls of the ornate Hayman Lounge.

A noonday look around the 120-seat main dining room, filled with men and women of many ages and races, reveals that elitism at this private club is based largely on achievement or financial generosity.

Undergraduates can't belong, although they may come as guests. Membership in the Ath is reserved for graduate students, postdoctoral students, faculty and certain staff members, Jet Propulsion Laboratory staff, scholars at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, and, as a courtesy, the mayor of Pasadena.

Big donors, known as associates, become members automatically when they give at least $40,000 to Caltech over a 10-year period.

But due to a budget subsidized by Caltech, Athenaeum fees and meal prices are modest. Students pay $6 monthly; faculty, $25. Cold poached salmon ravigotte runs $6.75 at lunch.

The Ath's charms have not escaped Hollywood's attention. Its imposing stone fireplace and Corinthian-columned courtyard have been featured in such films as "The Witches of Eastwick" and "The War of the Roses."

And Ramirez proudly pointed out courtyard furniture purchased with fees from "Beverly Hills Cop." He calls it "the Eddie Murphy patio furniture."

But the club's main purpose is to provide a gracious atmosphere for an illustrious band of scientists, engineers and students to noodle over ideas while they eat and relax.

To that end, the dress code is not strictly enforced, allowing for professorial tweeds as well as those whose idea of dress-up may be socks with sandals. Ramirez, who himself wears crisp business suits to work, noted gently: "We only suggest coat and tie."

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