The Stanford griffins return to public view

Two majestic griffins have been sitting in storage since 2005, when they last guarded the entrance to a now-demolished men’s gymnasium. After a few nips and tucks, they are being returned to campus to help oversee the pathway leading to the Stanford Mausoleum.

Griffin statues before they were placed in Ford Plaza in 2004.

The “Stanford griffins,” in storage at Stanford Stadium since 2005, will soon be installed at the entrance to the path that leads from the corner of Campus and Palm drives to the steps of the Stanford Mausoleum. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

A pair of statues of majestic griffins are coming out of storage to oversee the entrance to the path that leads to the mausoleum where the university’s founding family is interred.

“We think this will be a fun and whimsical surprise for people,” said Laura Jones, director of heritage services and university archaeologist. “These are two wonderful, mythological beasts. Who doesn’t love that?”

Whether they are, in fact, griffins or simply winged lions is open to debate. Griffins are generally half lion and half eagle. These statues are most definitely lions, albeit with eagle wings. But since 1932 at least, they have been referred to as the Stanford griffins. In any case, the 8-foot-tall iron creatures and pedestal were cast in France about 1870 by sculptor Eugène-Louis Lequesne. They have been in storage in Stanford Stadium since 2005, when they last guarded the entrance to the now-demolished men’s gymnasium at the corner of Campus Drive and Galvez Avenue. That’s where the Arrillaga Center for Sports and Recreation now stands.

The griffins were uncrated from storage in February. After some cleaning and painting touch-ups, they will be installed beginning mid-July at the entrance to the cedar-tree-lined path – technically Pine Avenue – that leads from the corner of Campus and Palm drives to the steps of the Stanford Mausoleum.

But some of the ravages of time – one griffin shows signs of having once lost its tail, for example – will remain, according to Jones. With their impressive history, she figures the statues probably earned every one of those nicks and bruises.

A long-traveled history

The history of the griffins remains somewhat open to discussion, but it seems certain they were two of four statues that once graced the fountain at the long-demolished Sherwood Hall, which was the Menlo Park estate of Timothy Hopkins, a Stanford trustee and the son of one of Leland Stanford’s railroad partners. The Hopkins Marine Station is named in Timothy Hopkins’ honor.

The griffins themselves are about 5 feet high and 4-1/2 feet long. They are hollow and equipped with water pipes befitting their former fountain duties. The statues, together with the bases upon which they sit on their haunches with their wings at the ready and their impressive teeth bared, each weigh about 1,500 pounds.

“These are two wonderful, mythological beasts. Who doesn’t love that?”

—Laura Jones

Director of Heritage Services and University Archaeologist

Hopkins was one of the founders of the Stanford Home for Convalescent Children, which was housed in the part of the original Stanford home that survived the 1906 earthquake. That area is now the location of the retirement village Vi at Palo Alto off Sand Hill Road across from the Stanford Shopping Center. Hopkins donated two of his fountain statues to the Convalescent Home in 1931, where they flanked the gated entrance from El Camino Real. Opened in 1920, the home eventually evolved into today’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

“That driveway was also the entrance to the Stanfords’ home,” Jones said. “They would get off the train from San Francisco in Menlo Park and then come down El Camino Real, turning right after San Francisquito Creek. The driveway later became the entrance to the Convalescent Home.”

According to a history of the griffins, written by alumnus and former Stanford administrator Donald Price for the Stanford Historical Society, when the Stanford Shopping Center was constructed in 1954, the Convalescent Home gates were moved back from El Camino Real and closer to the facility. The griffins, however, remained, even after the driveway was closed. There they quickly lost the battle to weeds and other signs of neglect.

“They were just sitting there, abandoned,” Jones said.

Rediscovery in 1978

Price reported that the griffins were rediscovered in 1978 by a service operations administrator. The find fortuitously came about the same time the name “griffin” was seriously considered as a replacement for the name of Stanford athletic teams, which had been known as the Indians. Among the supporters waging a campaign on behalf of the Stanford Griffins were Stanford athletes.

As a result, when an expansion of the shopping center required the griffins’ relocation, the Athletics Department, using funds from the Stanford Historical Society, had them placed in front of the former men’s gymnasium. The gymnasium was demolished in 2004. The griffins were crated and stored under the careful eye of Deputy Athletic Director Ray Purpur.

“I love the griffins and their relationship to athletics,” Purpur said.  “It’s a great part of Stanford history.”

The griffins might still be in storage were it not for Price, who annually has nudged the university to find a new home for the stately beasts. Cathy Blake, director of campus planning and design, said her office has been looking for a suitable location for the pair ever since the old gymnasium was demolished and is using a special gift account for campus improvements to fund the relocation and restoration. The formality of Pine Avenue was selected in the hopes that the griffins might help draw more attention to the path and to the historic Stanford Mausoleum.

Price concurs with the selected location: “I think the proposed location of the statues along Pine Avenue close to the intersection of Campus Drive and Palm Drive is excellent, for they should be easily seen.”