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

Author’s Note: This article “Stanford University: Visiting Leland Stanford’s Farm, An Engaging Campus” is a chapter in my new book/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. The subject is also covered in my book/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available in English as a book/ebook and also as an ebook in Chinese. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.

By Lee Foster

In Brief

On October 1, 1891, Senator Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane, officially opened Leland Stanford Junior University. Subsequently, the institution became one of the premier places of higher education. Moreover, it is also one of the lovelier campuses in the West.

Stanford University owes its existence to a tragic death. The couple had a 15-year-old son. However, he died from typhoid fever while the family was in Venice, Italy. After his death, the Stanfords decided to turn their 8,200-acre stock farm into the Leland Stanford Junior University. The Stanfords said, “The children of California may be our children.”

Years later the cerebral establishment retains, for some, its informal name “The Farm.” In short, the name is no surprise. Stanford used the grounds to raise prize trotting racehorses, orchard crops, and wine grapes.

The early faculty built homes in Palo Alto, one neighborhood of which became known as  Professorville.

In a full day of exploration, you can visit the campus and Palo Alto.

Stanford University’s Historic Story

Leland Stanford started modestly during the Gold Rush as a hardware merchant in Sacramento. Eventually he accumulated enough capital to become a partner in building the transcontinental railroad. The railroad crossed the Sierra Nevada. His success with the railroad brought prodigious wealth. Stanford rose in Republican Party circles. In 1861 voters elected him as governor of California.

Today’s Stanford campus is home to 13,000 students. You can guide yourself in a walk around campus with a map from the Visitor Information Center. Find the Visitor Center on the left as you walk from the Oval to the Inner Quad.


For the explorer, the first places to visit on the Stanford University grounds are the Main Quadrangle and Memorial Church. Then walk left to the Hoover Tower with the Hoover Institution for War, Peace, and Revolution. Finally, across the Oval, peruse the Cantor Arts Center, the major museum on campus.

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. The dominant architectural model was the Romanesque style. Consequently, there is a general feeling of unity, especially in the earlier buildings.

Architects for Stanford University

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 Olmsted, but made it clear that Olmsted 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. They did not exhibit the dominant force of Stanford himself.

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

Hoover Tower

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. 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 graduates.

Some of the holdings are on permanent display at the base of the tower. The Herbert Hoover Room contains documents from Hoover’s boyhood, professional mining days, and presidency. For example, Hoover wrote technical books on mining and directed mining operations in such distant locations as China.

Cantor Arts Center

The Cantor Center for Visual Arts, formerly called the Stanford Museum of Art, is on Museum Way off Palm Drive. Cantor 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 structure 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 the museum 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 in mainly African, Asian, Rodin, and Contemporary Art. Importantly, for the museum-weary, 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 is especially touching. Stanford’s handsome boy died of typhoid in Europe at age 16. However, he already showed his father’s inquisitive collector mentality. He treasured a stuffed owl and a Tiffany collection mimicking the world’s most precious diamonds. At times, the boy’s wooden roller skates, marbles, and velocipede early bicycle are on display.

Yurok Canoe

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.

Also on the second floor, the European and American art collections show choice pieces. Some rooms present temporary exhibits.

Moreover, the entire museum is online, with each piece scanned and searchable.

Getting to Stanford University 

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 tours (650/723-2560). The tours leave from 295 Galvez St.

Best Time of Year

Any time of the year is good for seeing Stanford.


For a place to stay overnight, consider several converted Victorians in Palo Alto. Above all, these attractive homes amount to pleasant bed-and-breakfast lodgings. For example, try the Cowper Inn (705 Cowper, Palo Alto, CA 94301, 650/327-4475, www.cowperinn.com.)


When it comes to dining, you might enjoy a historic restaurant called MacArthur Park (27 University Avenue, 650/321-9990). The ample, white-painted structure was a World War I “hostess house.” A famous architect, Julia Morgan, designed it in 1918. It was part of  Camp Fremont in adjacent Menlo Park. In short, while at MacArthur Park, try the smoked baby-back ribs or the mesquite-charcoaled swordfish.

For Further Information

Meanwhile, you can arrange tours of the Stanford campus at 650/723-2560. Similarly, the tour information is on the Stanford website at www.stanford.edu.  Click on Visit Campus.

The area contact for local tourism is the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce (355 Alma St., Palo Alto, CA 94301, 650/324-3121, www.paloaltochamber.com).

In the same vein, see another of my aricles/chapters “California’s Stanford University: A World-Class Legacy” is one of 30 chapters in my book/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options.





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