After standing empty for three decades, Old Chem, one of Stanford’s historic and most beloved buildings, will reopen late this fall as the Sapp Center for Science Teaching and Learning. In recognition of the Sapp family’s generous gift, Old Chem will be renamed for Shari and Rick Sapp, ’78, and their family.

front facade of newly restored and renovated Old Chem building

A century-old landmark, Old Chem has been restored and renovated to become a nexus of innovation as the Sapp Center for Science Teaching and Learning. (Image credit: Joy Leighton)

“The Sapp Center for Science Teaching and Learning preserves Stanford’s venerable past while embracing its exciting future,” says Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “In this historic building, students will engage with faculty to gain an exceptional foundation in science, participate in hands-on experimentation and collaborate across disciplines in a way that has become Stanford’s hallmark in undergraduate education.”

“The Sapp Center supports the School of Humanities and Sciences’ mission to educate students and inspire tomorrow’s discoveries,” says Richard Saller, the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the school.

“I’d like to thank President Emeritus John Hennessy for his vision in bringing back Old Chem as a center for undergraduate education,” Saller says. “The Sapp Center will also anchor the future Biology Chemistry Quad and act as a physical and intellectual bridge to the university’s other schools.”

In addition to the Sapp family gift, support from alumni and friends has made it possible for Stanford to restore and renovate this century-old landmark. In early 2017, undergraduates and faculty will begin using its labs, classrooms, study areas, auditorium, lecture hall and library.

At capacity, more than 4,000 students a day will pass through the halls and classrooms of this iconic building, taking courses not only in chemistry and biology but also in art, history, statistics and economics. At its core, the Sapp Center will launch a new era for interdisciplinary science education at Stanford.

“Excellence in teaching lies at the heart of a Stanford education,” says Rick Sapp. “An opportunity to transform the way future scientists, innovators and leaders think and learn is essential for our society to address the challenges experienced today and in the future. Interdisciplinary education, which bridges fields of knowledge and catalyzes the process of discovery, will serve as the foundation for the building’s new role as a center of 21st-century learning.

“After languishing in the shadows of campus life for 30 years, Shari and I are pleased to return this historically significant building to the university community and to support its role as a nexus of educational innovation,” he says.

Donor leadership and generosity

Rick Sapp’s ties to Stanford reach back 40 years; he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1978. After earning an MBA in 1981 from the University of Pennsylvania, he launched a successful career with Goldman Sachs.

He spent most of his career at Goldman Sachs’ London office, where he built and later headed the mergers and acquisitions and corporate advisory business for the firm’s European, Middle Eastern and African regions. Since his retirement from Goldman Sachs in 2003, he has worked as a private investor based in Southern California.

Lab classroom in large, open room with large windows offering view over campus

The building’s restoration combines old design with new classrooms for chemistry and biology that enhance hands-on instruction and exploration. (Image credit: Joy Leighton)

Shari Sapp earned a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Colorado in 1984 and worked for investment firms in England, where the family lived for 17 years.

She is currently a leadership volunteer in the arts, education and sports for children with special needs in Rancho Santa Fe, California, where the family lives.

The Sapps have long supported undergraduate education at Stanford through scholarships and the university fellows program. They also support interdisciplinary education and research because they believe that working across multiple fields teaches scholars and scientists to ask new questions and tackle challenges in unexpected ways.

When the couple learned about Stanford Bio-X, which facilitates interdisciplinary research connected to biology and medicine, they followed it with keen interest. In 2010, the Sapps’ engagement with the pioneering biosciences institute led to their endowment of the Sapp Family Provostial Professorship, which supports faculty whose appointments bridge multiple departments or institutes. The chair’s inaugural holder is Carla Shatz, the David Starr Jordan Director of Bio-X.

In addition to Rick Sapp’s philanthropic activity at Stanford, he is a longtime university volunteer and former member of the Board of Trustees. He is an active member of the Stanford Bio-X Advisory Council and recently participated in the President’s Neuro/ChEM-H Task Force.

He also volunteers for the School of Engineering and LEAD: Lifelong Engagement and Advocacy for Development. Previously, he served as president of The Stanford Trust, a charity registered in the United Kingdom that raises support for Stanford, and facilitated major gift development efforts in the U.K. and Europe during the Campaign for Undergraduate Education. Rick Sapp was also co-chair of his 30th reunion class committee and a member of the San Diego regional major gifts committee.

Several other donors have also provided critical financial support for the building’s reconstruction. The Oberndorf Family Auditorium was named thanks to funding from Susan and William Oberndorf. Other donors include Edward S. and Margaret W. Arnold, Mary and Greg Chabolla, the Frances K. and Charles D. Field Foundation, Chelsea and Joshua Freeman, Richard E. Hoffman, the Marks family, Patricia Chang and Warren Packard, Ned and Emily Sherwood Family Foundation, Fenton C. Tom family, Glenn and Kay White, and several anonymous donors.

A ‘noble’ past and a bright future for science

Old Chem has a rich history. The 60,000-square-foot sandstone and brick building served as the workhorse of the Department of Chemistry for more than 80 years. Its origins date back to 1897, when Jane Stanford gave the Board of Trustees a list of five “noble” buildings, including a home for the chemistry department, to be completed to fulfill her family’s vision for the university.

historic photo of chemistry classroom

For decades, students learned in Old Chem’s high-ceilinged classrooms and labs until growing academic needs and damage caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake shuttered its doors. (Image credit: Stanford University Archives)

Construction began in 1900 and was completed in 1902, with the first lecture classes held in January 1903. For decades, young chemists, chemical engineers, biochemists, biologists and pre-med students learned in its high-ceilinged classrooms and labs until growing academic needs and damage caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake finally shuttered its doors. Afterward, this Stanford landmark was cut off from campus by a tall hurricane fence for almost 30 years.

The building’s concept and design were considered advanced when it first opened. More than a century later, its skillful restoration, which combines old design with new, will again break ground by offering adaptive classrooms for chemistry and biology that enhance hands-on instruction and exploration.

This approach reflects the Sapp family’s philosophy of interdisciplinary education based on collaborative learning and the open exchange of ideas. “Biology and chemistry are inextricably linked in life sciences’ research and in medicine,” says Shari Sapp. “We are excited to help undergraduates build strong foundations in these sciences and learn to think creatively across the disciplines as they explore the process of discovery.”

The opening of the Sapp Center meets Stanford’s longstanding needs for modern teaching spaces in the natural sciences. “This renovation allows us to replace an aging set of labs and update parts of our curriculum,” says Chemistry Department Chair Keith Hodgson, the David Mulvane Ehrsam and Edward Curtis Franklin Professor.

Old Chem served as the workhorse of the Department of Chemistry for more than 80 years. It was among the "noble" building's constructed as part of university co-founder Jane Stanford's vision for the university.

Old Chem served as the workhorse of the Department of Chemistry for more than 80 years. It was among the “noble” buildings constructed as part of university co-founder Jane Stanford’s vision for the university. (Image credit: Stanford University Archives)

Jennifer Schwartz Poehlmann, a senior chemistry lecturer, says combining two core sciences in one building sends an important message about the future of science. “All the sciences really play together today,” she says. “Nothing is purely chemistry or purely biology anymore. The new labs allow us to show students how much these subjects intertwine.”

The Sapp Center will also support research efforts in other parts of the university, says Biology Department Chair Tim Stearns, the Frank Lee and Carol Hall Professor. “The idea that research and teaching are separate endeavors is artificial. Teaching helps you do better science.”

When the Sapp Center opens, visitors will enter on the second floor, which features “swing” labs that can be used for chemistry or biology. The ground floor has been excavated for the 300-seat Oberndorf Family Auditorium, a lecture hall, classrooms and an open gallery space.

On the third floor are organic labs as well as a science library that will offer digital resources and combine the university’s biology, chemistry, mathematics, statistics and chemical engineering collections. The fourth floor has been turned into a study space overlooking the Oval. A large terrace at the back of the building, to be used for scientific demonstrations and social gatherings, will open onto a future Biology Chemistry Quad.

As the university commemorates its 125th anniversary, the Sapp Center for Science Teaching and Learning will once again become a nexus for students from across campus. Flanked by the arts district, Engineering Quad and School of Medicine, and anchoring the future Biology Chemistry Quad, the Sapp Center will elevate Stanford’s position as a global leader in innovative, interdisciplinary education.