Author’s Note: This article “California’s Stanford University: A World-Class Legacy” is also a chapter in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available in English as a book/ebook and also as an ebook in Chinese. Parallel coverage on Northern California occurs in my latest travel guidebook/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
On October 1, 1891, Senator Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane, officially opened Leland Stanford Junior University. The school became 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. They expressed their desire with the phrase that “the children of California may be our children.”
Years later the cerebral establishment is still called by some “The Farm.” Leland Stanford had used the grounds to raise prize trotter racehorses, orchard crops, and wine grapes.
The early faculty built homes in Palo Alto, one neighborhood of which became “Professorville.”
In a full day of exploration you can visit the campus, adjacent Palo Alto, and the nearby Palo Alto Baylands marshes of San Francisco Bay, a delight to the naturalist.
The Stanford University Campus
Starting modestly during the Gold Rush as a hardware merchant in Sacramento, Stanford managed to accumulate some capital. He became 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 became 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. Then walk over to the Hoover Tower with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. Finally, peruse the Cantor Arts Center. All are within energetic walking distance of public parking available near the Cantor Arts Center, located off Palm Drive near the end, called The Oval.
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. The dominant architectural model was the Romanesque style. There is a general feeling of unity, especially in the earlier buildings.
Architect of Stanford University
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 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. Consequently, 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 came from the Salviati Studio in Venice, Italy. 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 rotating documents and artifacts 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. He once wrote, with some humor, “All men are equal before fish.” Hoover’s reputation eventually went into decline. Critics perceived him as either the cause of or the 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. These items were 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.
Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University
The Cantor Center for Visual Arts, formerly the Stanford Museum of Art, is on Museum Way off Palm Drive. The Center offers an eclectic collection that includes much Stanford family memorabilia. In addition, you may see historic treasures such as the gold spike that united the first transcontinental railroad. The permanent collections rotate items in and out, so you never know when exhibits will change.
Built in 1892, this is one of the oldest museums west of the Mississippi. Architecturally, the neo-classical building was one of the first to use reinforced concrete structural techniques. Railroad rails served as the reinforcers in the concrete.
The center/museum boasts an outstanding collection of Auguste Rodin sculptures. An outdoor sculpture garden, off the west wing, celebrates a Garden in Paris. One major thoughtful piece is The Three Shades. Moreover, inside is a rendition of Rodin’s classic, The Thinker.
Other collections, scattered over two levels, range from antiquity to the present and cover the world.
The first floor is mainly African, Asian, Rodin, and Contemporary Art. Importantly, for the museum-weary, the displays are state of the art, presented well, with ample signage. Choice pieces exist in every genre.
Stanford Family Collection
The first floor also has the Stanford Family Galleries, which are especially touching. Stanford’s handsome boy died of typhoid in Europe at age 15. However, he already showed his father’s inquisitive collector mentality. He treasured a stuffed owl and a Tiffany collection mimicking the world’ most precious diamonds. At times, the boy’s wooden roller skates, marbles, and his velocipede early bicycle are on display.
The second floor emphasizes indigenous American art, both from north and central America. An intriguing California contribution to the museum is a 19th-century Yurok Indian canoe. The Yuroks carved this vessel from a single redwood log. They used these canoes on the Klamath River and in long ocean trips.
European and American art, many choice pieces, plus temporary exhibits, also occupy space on the second floor.
The entire museum is online, with each piece scanned, at https://museum.stanford.edu/.
Leland Stanford’s Race Horses
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.
Today anyone in the public can go to the historic Red Barn and see where today’s equestrians house their steeds. An oval track in front of the barn often presents riders training their animals. Good signage and photos at the site, plus a life size statue, tell the story of Stanford’s great trotting horse, Electioneer. Stanford studied carefully the science and art of breeding the finest trotting horses. Could good trotters be bred to thoroughbreds for more speed?
One intriguing issue for betting gentlemen of the day was: Did a trotting horse at some point in its gait have all four hooves off the ground at the same time? Stanford said yes. Others said no, impossible. 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. Muybridge made this sequence of 24 images, in motion, and other sequences 1878-79. In addition to settling the dispute, the image sequence marked an advance in the new technology of motion pictures.
Palo Alto: Early Professorville, 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 and drive around. The area is compact.
Professorville has as its rectangular boundaries Ramona, Addison, Waverley, and Kingsley, with Lincoln Avenue and Bryant Street running through it. By driving or walking these streets you can see the houses, mostly from 1890 to 1910, that served as residences for the first faculty at Stanford.
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.
1910 Early California Architecture
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 University Avenue and parallel Hamilton Avenue. Take time to explore 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 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 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 belongs to 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.
Birds in Abundance
At the Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive Center, on the fringe of the salt marsh, there is a lecture room, a library, exhibits, and an observation deck. Mounted birds, from a great blue heron to sandpipers, show a few examples of the many species found here. Trained naturalists guide the operation. Likewise, guided bird and plant walks, slide shows, movies, and ecology workshops are some of the activities here. In addition, 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. Consequently, marsh hawks, black-shouldered kites, canvasback ducks, goldeneye ducks, and burrowing owls are just some of the winged residents. Moreover, migrating, overwintering, and permanent-resident birds can be seen. In the same vein, 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 lurk in the shallow waters and marshes of the bay.
Certainly, consider visiting the trio–Stanford University itself, the adjacent university town of Palo Alto, and the natural pleasures of the Palo Alto Baylands. In conclusion, this trio offers a compelling and intriguing option for a visitor.
Stanford University: If You Go
Stanford is 30 miles south of the San Francisco Airport on the San Francisco peninsula. In short, most travelers will fly into San Francisco. For visitor information, click on www.stanford.edu/dept/visitorinfo/
Further Information: Contact the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce at www.paloaltochamber.com
For a further discussion of Stanford, see another of my articles that is a chapter in my parallel book Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. That article/chapter is “Stanford University: Visiting Leland Stanford’s Farm, An Engaging Campus.”