Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, July 23, 2003

Branner Hall glows again after $20 million restoration


When Bob Shaw, formerly purchasing manager for dining services, came to an open house for the newly renovated Branner Hall last month, he made a beeline for the basement, where a temperamental boiler once sat, he recalled -- and not fondly. "The first thing I did was go down and make sure it was gone."

The old boiler had vanished, along with the coats of tired blue paint that had covered the wooden wainscoting and columns in the lounge, the dormitory beds that Rodger Whitney, executive director of student housing services, termed "San Quentin-style," and all traces of the heavy use meted out by decades of freshmen residents.

In fact, almost everything at the 80-year-old all-frosh dormitory has been repaired, restored or improved during a $20.2 million, 9-month-long project that has transformed the formerly battered Branner into a swan. The hall has new plumbing and electrical wiring, a rebuilt roof, a seismic upgrade and a brand-new kitchen. Most striking to visitors, however, is the return of elegance to the hall, which was designed by Bakewell & Brown, the San Francisco architectural firm that designed several campus buildings including Memorial Auditorium and the Bing Wing of Green Library.

With its gleaming woodwork, green velvet drapes, polished red tile floors and buttery walls, Branner Hall is now shades of the Bakewell & Brown-designed Meyer-Buck House, a former estate recently renovated as a campus residence. (Literally, since designers working separately on Branner and the Meyer-Buck House discovered that their research on 1920s-era paint colors had yielded exactly the same shade of cream.) A lot of effort went into maintaining Branner Hall's historic presence, said Shirley Everett, associate vice provost for residential and dining enterprises. "There's a real feeling of grandeur."

The hall, named for the university's second president, John Casper Branner, was built as a men's dorm in 1923 to ease a campus housing crunch. Originally designed for 132 students, the space will hold 176 students when it reopens to freshmen for Autumn Quarter. (Participants in youth athletic camps are using the dorm this summer.) The building's original $480,000 cost was financed with gate receipts from the then-newly built Stanford Stadium.

The renovation even improved on the original design by adding seating around a birdbath in front beneath decades-old magnolia trees. Two walls in a formerly glassed-in space were removed to create a courtyard where students can gather, and a barbecue area was recreated in a space that long ago held a rose garden. Architects were creative in making the most of the hall's common areas, Whitney said. When Branner Hall and neighboring Toyon Hall were built, Toyon was conceived as the dorm where students more inclined to social activities would live. Branner was to house the more "solitary, non-social group" of students, Whitney said.

In recent years, meals for Branner residents had been prepared in the Manzanita kitchens, in part because of Branner's aging "museum-quality" equipment. Although Branner's kitchen facilities have been completely rebuilt and equipped, housing maintenance staff preserved a bit of the past by restoring a cast-iron steamer found rusting away in the old kitchen.

Technicians hauled the old steamer, which was original to the kitchen, to the maintenance shop, where they disassembled and sandblasted it and meticulously put it back together. Staff did all the restoration work themselves, except for some metal replating, said Phil Resch, manager of maintenance services for Residential and Dining Enterprises. The highly skilled technicians in the shop "are all kind of artists," he added. The glossy black steamer now sits under a commemorative plaque in a passageway between the dining room and the servery.

The project restored the dining room and expanded the servery, where food will be available at seven separate stations. The skylighted servery space is evocative of a sunny family kitchen, with big windows, expanses of white tile and a brown-and-buff checkered floor.

'Bulletproof, practically'

The preservation aesthetic was carried into the hall's lounge area, where Cheryl Toeppen, manager of design services for Residential and Dining Enterprises, chose blue tapestrylike fabric to cover upholstered benches for a vintage look. She also made sure that the fabric could be cleaned with soap and water and was "bulletproof, practically." The fabric is about 10 times as durable as upholstery used on an average living room chair, Toeppen added. The tables surrounding a vintage Steinway grand piano are made of solid-surface plastic, which can be patched, since "kids put their feet on them, stand on them, dance on them," Toeppen said. The furnishings in all campus residential halls are chosen for durability as well as looks, she said. (In fraternity houses, "we even go a little bit further," spending extra for extra-durable flooring, she said.)

The reopening of Branner Hall marks the last in a series of major housing renovations, including Wilbur Hall, Florence-Moore Hall, Lagunita Court, Stern Hall, Toyon Hall, Escondido Village and numerous row houses. An $8.3 million renovation of three row houses will be completed before the Autumn Quarter, Everett said. A planned project to add 125 more beds at Manzanita has yet to be funded, she added.

With Branner's reopening, there are again enough spaces to house all undergraduate students who request campus housing. Last year, with Branner closed, some undergraduates who requested on-campus housing lived in university-leased apartments.

"We still have some uncrowding to do," Everett said. "But we did get the students back on campus."

Julie Lythcott-Haims, assistant vice provost and dean of freshman and transfer students, lived in Branner for three out of four of her undergraduate years, first as a freshman and then as a resident assistant during her junior and senior years.

One of the things that sets Branner apart is numbers, Lythcott-Haims said. "It's not that there's anything inherently better about it, but Branner will house more than 10 percent of the freshman class" -- more than any other residence. "The sheer number of freshmen gives it a special feel," she said.

"Residential and Dining Enterprises did such a beautiful job on the restoration," added Lythcott-Haims, who was among a group of former residents who came to the open house. "For me and others like me for whom the dorm was once 'home,' seeing it restored to its original glory along with modern enhancements made in the dining hall was quite moving."


A 9-month, $20.2-million project has restored Branner Hall, built in 1923 as a men’s dormitory, to its former grandeur. The once-battered building has been outfitted with new plumbing and electrical wiring, a rebuilt roof, a seismic upgrade and a new kitchen. Freshmen will move into the residence hall when it reopens Autumn Quarter. Photos: L.A. Cicero













Although kitchen facilities have been rebuilt and equipped, maintenance staff preserved a bit of the past by restoring a cast-iron steamer found rusting away in the old kitchen. Photo: Marie Oamek