Stanford University Hoover Tower at Sunset
Stanford University Hoover Tower at Sunset

Stanford University – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

On October 1, 1891, Senator Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane, officially opened Leland Stanford Junior University, which was destined to become one of the premier institutions of higher education and loveliest campuses in the West.

For today’s traveler, headed for the San Francisco region in Northern California, Stanford University is a cultural enrichment to consider including in a trip.

The University owes its existence to a tragic death while the Stanford family was on a European Trip in Florence, Italy. After typhoid fever took their only child, a 15-year-old son, the Stanfords decided to turn their 8,200-acre stock farm into the Leland Stanford Junior University so that “the children of California may be our children.”

Years later the cerebral establishment is still called by some “The Farm.” Stanford had used the grounds to raise prize racehorses, orchard crops, and wine grapes.

The early faculty built homes in Palo Alto, one neighborhood of which was dubbed Professorville.

In a full day of exploration you can visit the campus, adjacent Palo Alto, and the nearby marshes of San Francisco Bay, a delight to the naturalist.

The Stanford Campus

Starting modestly during the Gold Rush as a hardware merchant in Sacramento, Stanford managed to accumulate enough capital to become a partner in building the transcontinental railroad over the Sierra Nevada. The success of the railroad brought him prodigious wealth. Stanford rose in Republican Party circles and was elected governor of California.

Today’s Stanford campus is home to 13,000 students. You can guide yourself with a free map available from Visitor Information at the top of the stairs as you approach the main quadrangle.

For the explorer, the first places to visit on the Stanford University grounds are the main quadrangle and Memorial Church; the Hoover Tower with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace; and the Stanford University Museum of Art.

The most historic section of the Stanford campus is the original sandstone quadrangle with its thick Romanesque features and Memorial Church. Distinctive in the university architecture are the enclosed courtyard, archways, red tile roofs, thick walls, and buff sandstone from which the buildings are constructed. The dominant architectural model was the Romanesque style. There is a general feeling of unity, especially in the earlier buildings.

The primary architect for Stanford University was Charles Coolidge, but the clients, Leland and Jane Stanford, were far from passive. Because the Stanfords liked a certain Swiss hotel they had visited, a copy of that hotel was made to appear on campus as Encina Hall. Stanford hired the greatest landscape architect of the day, Frederick Law Olmstead, but made it clear that Olmstead was his employee. The Stanfords liked to participate in all details of the campus development.

Leland Stanford conceived of the university as a physical plan more than as an intellectual monument. At his death in 1893 there was no clear allotment of the developing space for different faculties. His wife, Jane, and her brother, Ariel Lathrop, proceeded with the building, but without the dominant force of Stanford.

Memorial Church, dedicated in 1903, was Mrs. Stanford’s memorial to her husband. The mosaics on the front were made in the Salviati Studio in Venice, Italy, and shipped to California. The church’s tower toppled in the 1906 Earthquake and was never rebuilt.

Hoover Tower, the 285-foot landmark on the campus, offers a panoramic view of the surrounding region if you take the elevator ride to the top. Concerts using the 35-bell carillon of Hoover Tower occasionally ring out.

The tower houses part of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, which has millions of papers and books related to world conflict. Included in the collection are the presidential papers of Herbert Hoover, Stanford’s most celebrated graduate from the early years. Some of the holdings are on permanent display in two rooms at the base of the tower.

The Herbert Hoover Room contains many documents from Hoover’s boyhood, professional mining days, and presidency. Hoover wrote technical books on mining and directed mining operations in such distant locations as China. This son of a Quaker blacksmith was also an avid fisherman who wrote, “All men are equal before fish.” Hoover’s reputation eventually went into decline when he was perceived as either the cause of or scapegoat for the Depression. The room across the lobby, dedicated to Hoover’s wife, Lou Henry, contains artifacts such as Belgian lace, Oriental vases, and South American/Mexican silver, either given to the Hoovers as political gifts or collected by them in their itinerant life.

The institution now serves as an international teaching and research center on economic, social, and political change in the 20th/21st centuries.

At the lobby you can obtain maps and literature about the Stanford campus, including a handout on several outdoor sculptures added to the university landscape in the 1980s.

The Leland Stanford Junior University Museum of Art, on Museum Way off Palm Drive, has an eclectic collection that includes much Stanford family memorabilia and the gold spike that united the first transcontinental railroad.

Built in 1892, this is the oldest museum west of the Mississippi. Architecturally, the neo-classical building was the first to use reinforced concrete structural techniques. Railroad rails served as the reinforcement in the concrete.

The museum boasts an outstanding collection of Auguste Rodin sculptures. An outdoor sculpture garden, off the west wing of the museum, celebrates a Rodin sculpture collection second only to that of the Rodin Museum Garden in Paris. Other collections, ranging from antiquity to the present, include Oriental jade and ceramics, California landscape paintings, western Indian basketry and ceramics, ancient Near Eastern ceramic vessels, and an Egyptian mummy. One of the intriguing California contributions to the museum is a 19th-century Yurok Indian canoe carved from a single redwood log. Yuroks used these canoes on the Klamath River and in ocean trips to hunt for sea lions.

The Stanford family collection includes many artifacts from the young Stanford boy’s brief life. He possessed the same eclectic collector’s mentality that characterizes the holdings of the museum. Items include a castle rock and a hair from Napoleon’s chair, gathered while visiting Europe with his parents. His bicycle, an early velocipede, stands in the middle of the family memorabilia, below large paintings of the family.

Stanford University Hoover Tower at Sunset
Stanford University Hoover Tower at Sunset

The original Stanford stables, approachable from Campus Drive West off Junipero Serra Boulevard, played an important role in settling a hotly debated issue among gentlemen of Stanford’s day. Look for the red barn, built in 1870, a few hundred yards down Fremont Road.

The issue was: Did a trotting horse at some point in its gait have all four hooves off the ground at the same time? Stanford hired photographer Eadweard Muybridge to set up a battery of cameras that could record a horse in motion. Muybridge’s photos showed that the horse was indeed airborne at one moment. This sequence of 24 images in motion was made in 1878-79, and in addition to settling the dispute, it also marked an advance in the history of motion pictures. A bronze marker at the site recalls these experiments.

Palo Alto: Early Professorvile, A Modern City Today

Adjacent to Stanford lies the appealing university town, Palo Alto, named in Spanish for the “tall tree,” a stately redwood that still survives, but with diminished grandeur, due to a lightning strike.

As the idea of founding a university took shape in his mind, Stanford wanted to have a town site nearby where the professors could live.

The original Stanford faculty and first core of Palo Alto residents lived in a snug little area called Professorville, still very much intact today and interesting to walk around.

The indispensable guides to discovering Professorville are pamphlets available from the Palo Alto Historical Association. Professorville is a compact area bounded by Ramona, Addison, Waverley, and Kingsley, with Lincoln Avenue and Bryant Street running through it. By walking these streets you can see the houses, mostly from 1890 to 1910, that served as residences for the first faculty at Stanford. The Professorville pamphlet is a great aid to your investigation because it pinpoints 29 houses and gives a brief sketch of their occupants.

The dominant architecture here is the brown cedar shingle style favored by gifted architects such as Bernard Maybeck. His “Sunbonnet” house at 1061 Bryant is a good example. The house of Professor Frank Angell, 1005 Bryant, is another attractive residence.

The Victorian style was winding down just as Palo Alto was starting up, but the circa 1889 Ashby House at 1145 Forest Avenue, once the home of an orchardist, is a lovely example of a Victorian cottage with shiplap board siding.

About 1910 a new style of house, called Early California, emerged. These houses were characterized by thick walls, deeply-recessed main entrances, wrought iron and plaster grillwork, balconies, and tile roofs. Good examples of this style can be seen in the 1900 block on Cowper, with the purest examples at 1990 and 1950, both built in 1932. Birge Malcolm Clark was the architect who designed these houses.

As you explore historic Palo Alto, one of the imposing residences to acquaint yourself with is the house built by John Adams Squire at 900 University Avenue. This Georgian Classical Revival structure, with its Greek columns, reflected Squire’s Boston upbringing more than the rustic, Spanish world of California. Son of a wealthy meatpacker, Squire came west with his wife Georgiana in 1888. She taught Latin and Greek at what was then the State Normal School in San Jose, now San Jose State University. Squire himself pursued the study of classics at Stanford and indulged his interest in meteorology.

Within downtown Palo Alto, stroll the handsome brick-lined sidewalks of University Avenue and parallel Hamilton Avenue. Take time to explore in all the side streets between Alma and Waverley streets. Allow an unstructured afternoon for rambling here because the area offers much to see. Some of the main attractions are bookstores, art galleries, and eateries.

Palo Alto is a bookish community because of Stanford’s presence. In downtown Palo Alto you can find a wide selection of bookstores, small restaurants, and murals. This is an interesting area to explore.

Ramona between University and Hamilton has two 1920s neo-mission-style buildings by artist-craftsman Pedro de Lemos, at 530 and 535 Ramona. These buildings form a small world of shops and restaurants, which preserve in the setting, including the original live oak trees. The structures set the style of the block and were echoed in later buildings by architect Birge Clark, emphasizing archways and iron balconies. Mission-revival architecture, using tile roofs and thick, simulated-adobe walls with stucco surfaces, intrigued Californians in the 1920s.

Palo Alto: The Baylands

A visitor to Stanford can also experience the remarkable natural environment of San Francisco Bay, one of the great estuarine environments in the West. Stanford and Palo Alto lie adjacent to the Bay.

The diverse flora and fauna of this shallow, open bay has all the appeal of a California redwood forest for an informed observer. Moreover, the absence of man-made structures on the Bay adds an important spatial dimension to human feeling in the region, especially for the seeker of solitude.

Protected baylands at 2775 Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto offer the best opportunity to encounter the riches of bay plant and bird communities. The 120-acre salt marsh and surrounding property is owned and operated by the city of Palo Alto.

At Palo Alto Baylands you can make the acquaintance of salt marsh flora and birds. A trail system of boardwalks and levees allows you the unique experience of “walking in the marsh,” even during high tide. The main boardwalk leads out from the interpretive center to an observation deck near the water’s edge. Connecting boardwalks installed originally for maintaining utility towers add to the potential walking territory.

At the Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive Center, on the fringe of the salt marsh, there are a lecture room, a library, exhibits, and an observation deck. The mounted birds, from a great blue heron to sandpipers, are a few examples of the many species found here. Trained naturalists guide the operation. Guided bird and plant walks, slide shows, movies, and ecology workshops are some of the activities here. Programs emphasize seasonal migration patterns and the interdependence of plants and animals.

Birds are a special treat here. The 1,500 total acres of preserve along a 2.5-mile frontage allow for a sufficiently large habitat to maintain a range of species. Marsh hawks, black-shouldered kites, canvasback ducks, goldeneye ducks, and burrowing owls are just some of the winged residents. Migrating, overwintering, and permanent-resident birds can be seen. For birdwatchers, this is an excellent place to see secretive California clapper rails at high tide. About half of the 200 species of birds common to the region can be seen in the shallow waters and marshes of the bay.

Stanford University itself, the adjacent university town of Palo Alto, and the natural pleasures of the Palo Alto Baylands form a compelling and intriguing trio of attractions for a visitor.


Stanford University: If You Go

Stanford is 30 miles south of the San Francisco Airport on the San Francisco peninsula. Most travelers will fly into San Francisco. For visitor information, click on

Further Information: Contact the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce at

This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page


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