By Lee Foster

(Author’s Note: I am out exploring California as I update my book Northern California History Weekends for a new edition. This chapter is about Stanford University, its role in California history, and how to visit it today.)

In Brief: 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 also one of the lovelier campuses in the West.

The University owes its existence to a tragic death. 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 “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.

The Historic Story: 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 16,800 undergraduate and graduate students. You can guide yourself in a walk around campus with a map from Visitor Information Center.

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 for War, Peace, and Revolution; and the former Stanford University Museum of Art, now known as the Cantor Center for Visual Arts.

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 courtyards, 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 the senator.

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 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA
Hoover Tower at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA

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 ring out at noon, 5 p.m., and on special occasions.

The tower houses part of the Hoover Institution, which has millions of papers and books related to world conflict. Included in the collection are the presidential papers of Herbert Hoover, one of Stanford’s most celebrated graduate. Some of the holdings are on permanent display 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.

The Cantor Center for Visual Arts, formerly the Stanford 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 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. 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.

Getting There: Stanford is 30 miles south of San Francisco, off Highway 101 at Palo Alto. Turn onto University Avenue.

Be Sure to See: Allow a full day for a look at Stanford. You can also participate in various walking and golf-cart tours (650/723-2560). The tours leave from Visitor Center, 295 Galvez St.

Best Time of Year: Any time of the year is good for seeing Stanford.

Lodging: Several converted Victorians in Palo Alto amount to pleasant bed-and-breakfast lodgings. Try the Cowper Inn (705 Cowper, Palo Alto, CA 94301, 650/327-4475,

Dining: One historic restaurant is MacArthur Park (27 University Avenue, 650/321-9990). The ample, white-painted structure was a World War I hostess house, designed by Julia Morgan in 1918 for Camp Fremont in adjacent Menlo Park. Try the smoked babyback ribs or the mesquite-charcoaled swordfish.

For Further Information: Tours of the Stanford campus can be arranged at 650/723-2560. The tour information is also on the Stanford website at, click on Visit Campus. Area contact for tourism is the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce (355 Alma St., Palo Alto, CA 94301, 650/324-3121,

See Lee’s four Northern California books/ebooks on his Amazon Author Page.
See Lee’s books/ebooks
on his Amazon Author Page and in Independent Bookstores

The San Francisco region figures prominently in my book/ebook titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. My main book/ebook on Northern California is Northern California Travel: The Best Options. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends. One of my California books, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, is now available as an ebook in Chinese.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.