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Palm Drive: A bumpy, muddy history

STANFORD -- In its century-long history, Palm Drive rarely has been considered a smooth grand entry to campus.

Photos from the 1890s show deep carriage tracks on a long dirt or mud road, depending on the weather.

A memorable cartoon in a late 1940s issue of the student humor magazine Chaparral shows a man driving the road as his passenger tries unsuccessfully to light a cigarette hanging out of the driver's mouth. His face is covered with burn spots.

"Wait till we get off Palm Drive," he says, referring to the bumpy ride.

More than four decades later, pregnant women on their way to Stanford Hospital often map out an alternate route to avoid the pothole-ridden street.

Developing a plan for the road's most thorough restoration in a century was a challenge for planners trying to balance history with the need to move traffic efficiently.

University Archivist Maggie Kimball, who was consulted about the project, said that there is no defining historic moment for the central road.

"Palm Drive as originally designed was never built," she said. "It has evolved over time to meet the requirements of the university and surrounding community."

Palm Drive - shown as University Avenue as late as the 1940s on some campus maps - and the Oval were the last major additions to the university plan developed in 1886-88 by the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Leland Stanford's idea

Suggested by Senator Leland Stanford, Palm Drive replaced what would have been two diagonal roads - one leading toward the rambunctious town of Mayfield and the other to Menlo Park - joined at a small circle in front of the Quad.

Kimball speculated that if Mayfield had been willing to give up its 13 saloons and brewery, Leland Stanford may not have sought the change.

Certainly Stanford was interested in keeping students away from ready access to hard liquor, and he supported plans for the new dry town of Palo Alto (it later swallowed up Mayfield, now the California Avenue area).

A grand entrance also helped fulfill Leland Stanford's desire for a monumental campus to memorialize his son. For practical reasons, he wanted the grand avenue to begin at a train station.

Olmsted's plan for the central road focused attention on Memorial Church in the distance. The dense arboretum would obscure most of the Quad until the traveler arrived at the Oval for a dramatic, sweeping campus view. The drama must have pleased the Stanfords, and the use of nature to obscure the view until the right moment no doubt pleased Olmsted, who all along wanted the university to be more rustic and naturalistic.

As for the road itself, Olmsted in 1889 developed plans for paving, sidewalks, gutters and granite curbstones. The road soon was graded, but the paving did not meet Olmsted's specifications, and the rest of the plan was not executed. Thus, the monumental approach never became the highly finished roadway that was intended.

The palm trees apparently were planted soon after the road was graded - they show in early photographs of the unpaved street.

A student athlete from about 1910 later in life told a Stanford professor that he had enjoyed jumping over the young trees while running along Palm Drive.

Modest sandstone gateposts, with sphinxes atop, marked the entrance in the 1890s. They were replaced in 1904 at a cost of $23,000 with fancy arched structures resembling the east and west portals of the Quad. Those collapsed in a heap when the earth shook on April 18, 1906. The present simple entry portals were installed in 1931.

Road unused for nine years

Traffic always has been a problem on Palm Drive, even in the early years.

In 1905, university trustees came up with what appeared to be an innovative solution. They closed the main entry to motorized vehicles, reserving it for horse-drawn carriages, bicycles and pedestrians. Signs on each side of the entry gates read: "The Board of Trustees kindly requests that no automobiles or gasoline bicycles trespass on these premises."

The rule was waived for campus physician Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, later president of the university.

Trustees ordered a new "automobile road" to be built. Its entrance, a short distance down El Camino Real from the main gates, can still be seen. The road angled through the arboretum to hook up with Lasuen Street.

The practical effect of this was to close the university's main driveway to visitors. Most people entering campus used the automobile road or an electric trolley car from Palo Alto that ran parallel to Palm Drive and connected to Galvez Street.

In 1914, trustees lifted their ban.

The Stanford Alumnus magazine noted in November 1914 that the road was being resurfaced with oil and gravel in preparation for motorized vehicles:

"The main approach to the university from Palo Alto, long unused except by tradesmen, since all automobiles have been deflected to the side road that was built and maintained especially for them, is being resurfaced with finely crushed rock rolled into an especially heavy grade of crude oil.

"The return to the palm drive is in accordance with the plan of those who originally designed the grounds of the university, and once more will give to visitors an impressive first view of the quadrangle - something that has been entirely lost through the employment of the side road through the Arboretum."

The magazine also reported that wire fences running much of the distance between Palo Alto and the Quad would be taken down. They had been installed two years before to restrain sheep that were kept in the arboretum to graze on the undergrowth.

Officials also thinned out many trees and removed all underbrush in the arboretum to give it the feeling of a grove instead of a "tangled wood."

Eventually, the oil-and-gravel surface gave way to asphalt. This might have been in the 1930s or '40s, said Michael Kuntz, civil engineer in Facilities Operations. That's when technology improved and asphalt-cement became the preferred paving material.

In his "archeological" diggings on the road, Kuntz has found seven different layers or kinds of base rock going down about 20 inches. Interestingly, the only asphalt he found was the top layer. "It doesn't make sense to me," he said. Apparently, old asphalt was removed when the new was applied.

As for the road's fluctuating crown, it developed because the middle 30 feet of road - one-and-a-half lanes in each direction - is on a good base, but the outer 6 feet on each side is on rock or cobbles or nothing. Where the base is inadequate, which is almost the whole length, Kuntz said, the edges are sinking and cracking, contributing to the road's pitch.



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