My girlfriend and I took a drive up to California State University, Channel Islands, to explore the grounds of the unique campus. The blending of old and new architecture intrigued us as it painted a picture of the university’s past, present, and future.

CSU Channel Islands is one of the newest campuses in the California State University system and is the only one located in Ventura County. They opened their doors in 2002 and currently have fewer than 5,000 students according to their website. That fact alone drew me to it when I was an undergrad considering four year universities to transfer to back in 2007. Who wouldn’t want to attend a place with small class sizes? To me that made it more like a private school than a public university. Another thing I found interesting was its history. CSU Channel Islands now occupies buildings that used to belong to Camarillo State Hospital, a mental asylum that operated from 1936 until the state shut it down in 1997 due to budget cuts. The California State University was smart to purchase a fixer-upper instead of buying untouched land to construct new buildings on. The Mission Revival Style architecture of the old hospital-turned-university also gives the campus a unique sense of character. It’s a California thing.

Many of the old hospital dorms have been converted into classrooms and labs, including the former children’s wing: it now houses freshmen. Other areas of campus remain closed to the public as they await renovation. Peering into the doors and windows of those buildings can be unnerving, featuring long, dark hallways lined with old steel institutional doors. The kind with tiny square windows that let doctors stare in without being large enough for a patient to crawl through. And while the abandoned buildings and quiet courtyards can be eerie, they also show a lot of potential for growth. CSU Channel Islands expects to accommodate as many as 15,000 students in the future [source: CSU Channel Islands].

The most modern building on campus is the newly constructed John Spoor Broome Library, a steel, glass, and concrete structure that stands out against the decades old construction around it. Architect Lord Norman Foster designed the library. His firm also designed the Beijing Airport and the Millennium Bridge in London. It’s an impressive facility, with large windows that allow it to be lit by the sun instead of traditional fluorescent or LED lighting while giving students inside a panoramic view of the campus and surrounding agricultural fields [source: Ventura County Star].

So what did we think after our self-guided tour? It’s a pretty campus. The Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival Style architecture is beautiful, and their plans for the future are impressive. But it all came with an eerily peaceful vibe. Perhaps it was because we came on a Sunday afternoon when class wasn’t in session, but the entire north quad of campus was empty. It’s also where most of the abandoned buildings are located (along with the art classes). There was more activity in the south quad, where the freshmen dorms and some cafes are located. One student was blasting Michael Jackson’s Thriller album out their window, and the music filled the entire courtyard. How fitting a soundtrack. I bet it’s a fun place on Halloween.

I’ll leave you with this: I think it’s perfectly natural for humans to ascribe certain haunting qualities to places that have a mysterious past. In this case it’s easy to combine the campus’s history as an asylum with its dark, abandoned buildings, and suddenly our imaginations run wild with thoughts of ghosts and other spooky what ifs. I know ours did, if only in a playful way that any couple or group would toy with as they explore. But in the end it’s a university now, a place that can only move forward. And someday those empty hallways will be flooded with students rushing to their next class or socializing under the shady trees in the courtyard. As somebody who already works in higher education, I think it would be a fun place to be a part of as it grows.

How many of you have ever attended CSU Channel Islands, or at least considered it? How was your experience there? Here’s a song by jazz musician Charlie Parker called “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” to listen to while you comment. Parker was a patient for six months from 1946 to 1947 at Camarillo State Hospital for heroin addiction and a nervous breakdown [source: PBS].

Thanks for reading.

Pete Medina is a web producer by day and a freelance creative by night. His skills include adaptive front end web design and development, graphic design and basic photography. He enjoys black coffee, travel, music, writing, and ruffling his girlfriend’s feathers.