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Five things you probably didn’t know about Burns Tower

Burns Tower under construction, late 1962, vs. Burns Tower today

A feat of architectural design, Burns Tower has stood proudly at the eastern end of Pacific’s Stockton campus for over 60 years. The iconic landmark is widely known for impressive Gothic spires and luminous stained glass—but there’s a rich and fascinating story inside its walls.  

“In the dedication of Robert E. Burns Tower on Sunday, March 8,1964, the solid construction and vertical dimension of the building symbolize the far-reaching objectives to be attained; its name represents the man most eager to get on with the task.” – Pacific Review, February 1964 

Early concept designs for Burns Tower, circa 1960. Pulled from Pacific Review archives. 

Here are five interesting historic facts you may not know about Burns Tower.  

#1. There is a water tower inside Burns Tower 

Photo by Joel Phal Dardis, circa November 1962 

Burns Tower is beautiful, yes, but did you know the original reason for its construction was to mask a potential eyesore? Around 1960, administration was searching for a way to trim Pacific’s water bill. The solution? Construct a 150,000-gallon water tower on Pacific grounds. Seizing an opportunity to create something beautiful, leadership thought beyond this simple budget fix and instead aimed to construct something unprecedented to the Stockton area. They commissioned the help of architects Howard G. Bissell and Glen H. Mortensen to design what became Burns Tower, a functional building built around the campus water tower. 

#2. Burns Tower is a working bell tower 

Residents of Stockton know the hourly chimes and twice-daily songs well. Construction plans included installation of 122 miniature bell units of bronze bell metal, including 61 Flemish bells and 61 harp bells. Since the tower’s completion in 1963, these bells have been heard marking the top of every hour and playing a selected tune at 12:30 p.m. as well as 11 p.m.  

#3. Burns Tower was the tallest structure in Stockton for three decades

Aerial view of campus from the east, circa 1964

Burns Tower stood taller than any other structure in Stockton until the 1990s (today, the tallest building is the county courthouse). Its spires climb to 178-feet tall, and rising above those once stood a 90-foot-tall radio antenna. 

#4. You heard us––Burns Tower hosted an entire radio station

In fact, Burns Tower was home to the first educational stereophonic transmitter west of the Rocky Mountains.  

On the ninth floor of Burns Tower lives the radio room, once occupied by the radio station KCVN. This station could transmit at a range reaching as far as Sacramento and Tracy. At the time, that was a truly historic achievement. The transmitter was eventually moved to Mount Oso in Stanislaus County, extending the station’s reach significantly. 

(Any NPR listeners out there? An entire week of “All Things Considered” was once broadcast from Burns Tower during the presidential debates held in San Francisco in the 1976.) 

An excerpt from Pacific Review, 1976. 

#5. Priceless university archival documents were discovered in the basement 

Just a few years ago during renovations of Burns Tower, Pacific staff came across a locked metal safe in the basement. It took the help of the local fire station, who carefully used the “jaws of life” to unlock its contents. An astonishing discovery was made––University of the Pacific’s original charter document, along with journals dating back to the 1850s, an 1862 diploma printed on animal skin and other artifacts detailing the university’s beginning were inside.  


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