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Stanford Report, May 10, 2000

Faculty Essay The Stanfords' vision of their university: Was it appropriate?


When I arrived at Stanford in the early 1970s as a transplant from the East who knew little about the architecture of the West, I was truly amazed by the Stanford Quad -- with its bold design and scale, its fine architectural components and its splendid relationship with its environment. It has continued to impress and delight me ever since.

When I discovered that there were many unanswered questions about the original design of the university, I began doing research on the subject. And I've been investigating one aspect or another of the story ever since. I've written articles and given talks on some of these aspects. And I was inspired by the Stanford architecture to undertake a study of American campus design in general -- which resulted in my book Campus.

However, there's one question about the design of Stanford that I've never articulated very explicitly. So I decided to address it here.

The question might be posed as follows: Was the plan that Leland and Jane Stanford conceived for the physical form of their university appropriate to its function?

First let me set the stage with some background.

The original master plan for the Stanford campus was produced, as we know, starting in 1886, by the professional designers the Stanfords had hired: the great park planner Frederick Law Olmsted; and the architect Charles Coolidge, a young associate of Henry Hobson Richardson, whom the Stanfords had apparently intended to hire, but who had died unexpectedly just as the process began.

When I first became familiar with the original design for the Stanford campus and the Quad, I assumed, as did other historians, that it was essentially the creation of Olmsted and Coolidge. When I then learned more about the design, and found that it resulted from a rather difficult collaboration between the clients and the architects, I assumed that the professionals must have had the best ideas, which had no doubt been compromised or impeded by the clients.

But as I delved further into the subject, using documents such as the correspondence between the principal figures in the enterprise, I came to realize that it was actually the Stanfords who conceived many of the best ideas -- or at least the most innovative ones -- and that the ongoing tensions between them and the architects may actually have contributed, in unexpected ways, to the quality of the final design.

Olmsted's original concept for the Stanford campus is revealed in a drawing I found in the Olmsted office in Brookline, Mass., in 1976, when this office was still used by the successors to Olmsted's firm. This large drawing, which had been misfiled in the Brookline office, was inscribed by Olmsted himself: "Leland Stanford Junior University . . . First Study and Sketch Map Made in California, . . . September 26, 1886." It shows a very modest, informal arrangement of small college buildings, similar to some of the plans Olmsted had previously made for the new land-grant institutions in the United States or for small private colleges.

This drawing suggested a couple of points, later confirmed by other information: first, that Olmsted did not initially understand the true nature of the Stanfords' vision of their university nor the resources they were prepared to devote to it; and second, that the immense, sweeping plan that subsequently evolved over the next year or so was essentially the conception of the Stanfords, although it was worked out and given its detailed form by the professionals Olmsted and Coolidge.

This master plan was unlike any earlier design for an American campus. For one thing, its scale was much greater: with the mile-long Palm Drive leading to the spacious Quad; and with plans for future growth into additional quadrangles to the east and west (one of the master plans shows six more quads, each as big as the main quad); with plans also for large areas of housing, integrated into the design; and all of this set within great expanses of parkland.

But equally unusual was the character of the master plan: its highly formal and monumental organization, around a series of axes, leading through sequences of spaces and focusing on impressive monuments -- especially an immense Memorial Arch, and Memorial Church. (The arch was constructed, but fell in the 1906 earthquake.) Also remarkable was the highly integrated design of all the buildings of the Quad, linked together by a system of arcades, which made the entire complex more than simply a collection of individual structures -- indeed, more like formal groups of buildings and spaces in European cities, or palaces, than typical American institutional complexes.

Why did the Stanfords conceive their campus with such an unusual -- indeed, unprecedented -- plan? Several reasons might be suggested, such as their familiarity with Europe, from the Grand Tours they had taken with Leland Jr.; or the possibility that their wealth simply encouraged extravagance. But the overriding reason, I'm sure, was the memorial motive of the entire enterprise: the desire to create, in the physical form of their university, a fitting memorial to their lost child. To achieve this goal properly, in their eyes, the design had to be grand, monumental and formal.

In this sense, the campus envisioned by the Stanfords could be seen as one vast monument to Leland Jr. -- a symbolic mausoleum, as it were, or a great memorial park.

But: Was this kind of vision appropriate to the design of a university?

To many people at the time, the plan for the Stanford campus must have appeared grandiose and excessively formal for an educational institution. In fact, both Olmsted and Coolidge, I think, had misgivings about it for this reason. This was the main cause of some of the disagreements between the architects and the Stanfords -- disagreements that can be seen in the records of the design process. One of my favorite of these records is a letter that Coolidge wrote to Olmsted, in May of 1887, after Coolidge had brought to Palo Alto the drawings and a model of the design for the Quad that he and Olmsted considered the final design, already the product of many compromises with the Stanfords' wishes.

Coolidge reported:

We had the surveyors stake out [the inner quad buildings], and when it was completed we went over the ground with [the Stanfords] and they said it faced the wrong way and that they never intended entering the quad from the ends, but wished the main drive and tomb vista to be on the long side. We showed them how by this change they lost the vista from the tomb to the back hills through the trees because the church would cut it off, but they thought the vista was long enough, and would end more appropriately at the end of the church. . . . Finally we told them that this would change the grade and would upset your work, to which the Gov. replied a Landscape Arch't and an Arch't might be disappointed but he was going to have the buildings the way he wanted them. . . . Both Mr. and Mrs. S. think the main entrance should be a large memorial arch with an enormously large approach and in fact the very quietness and reserve which we like so much in it is what they want to get rid of.

So here we have two very different conceptions of the university and its physical form. The architects conceived it as "quiet and reserved" -- a modest institution, integrated into the natural environment; for example, by having the main vista culminate in the foothills. The Stanfords had a different vision, highly structured and prominent -- with "an enormously long approach," as Coolidge said, leading to an immense Memorial Arch, through which the main vista passed and then focused on the Memorial Church -- all of these elements emphasizing, of course, the memorial purpose of the entire project.

One can understand how the public, seeing published drawings of the plan, and then watching the grand structures rise over the next 15 years or so, could have considered them excessive. Even David Starr Jordan was dubious, and referred to this period of construction as "The Stone Age."

And to some extent, the critics were correct, I think. The Stanfords' plan was inappropriate, in certain ways, for a private college or university of that time.

But, I believe that this master plan became appropriate. SR