If you were to visit the Stanford campus in 1905 – the year the Main Quad was completed – it would have looked quite different from today. 

Coming down Palm Drive – which would have been a bumpy carriage ride on an unpaved road – the 100-foot-tall Memorial Arch would have dominated your view of campus. As you got closer, you would have noticed how on all four sides of the arch was an impressive, 12-foot frieze – titled “Progress of Civilization in America” – that featured sculpted historical scenes and figures, including university co-founders Leland and Jane Stanford on horseback, charting a route across the Sierra Nevada for the Central Pacific Railroad – an endeavor though which Leland Stanford amassed his fortune. 

The arch was hollow, with a staircase at either end that would have led you to an observation deck. 

“What would have been very exciting was to go up the arch and look down Palm Drive,” said Sapna Marfatia, Stanford’s campus preservation architect. “Because it was the tallest thing around at the time, you would have been able to see all the way to the Bay.” 

Memorial Church – which was modeled after Trinity Church in Boston – looked quite different back then, too. Atop the church there was an ornate 12-sided, 80-foot spire.

These grand sights were built as part of the Stanfords’ plan to memorialize their only child, who at age 15 died of typhoid. Leland Jr.’s death stirred his grieving parents to take the children of California under their stewardship and build a campus in his honor.

“Leland wanted the scale [of the university] to be monumental,” Marfatia said. He also insisted that stone be used, particularly sandstone. 

These sights came crumbling down in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, a major disaster that killed an estimated 3,000 people in the Bay Area, including a Stanford student and a staff member on campus. Following an extensive damage assessment, the university decided not to rebuild the grandiose, and incredibly costly, arch and steeple – which some believed was for the better. “Now, the church feels in proportion with the rest of the Inner Quadrangle,” Marfatia said. 


The 1906 earthquake transformed Stanford’s built environment, but it was not the only instance in which outside forces influenced campus design. 

For example, World Wars I and II also had profound effects. 

War efforts took away both building supplies and the workforce needed for any major construction. During these periods, designs were simplified, moving away from the time- and labor-intensive unreinforced masonry construction to speedier, concrete infrastructure.

“The earthquake taught us certain lessons of not continuously building in stone,” Marfatia said. 

The original plan – a design born from a fraught and, at times, quarrelsome relationship between Leland and the renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted – envisioned quadrangles east and west of the Main Quad. But in the period between the two world wars, the quadrangular plan was abandoned and Green Library, which was completed in 1919, blocked the Main Quad’s east side. Similarly, the Main Quad’s quintessential arcade was modified into a colonnade at the Library along Lasuen Mall.

Post-World War II, the university rushed to construct new buildings to meet the influx of new students coming to campus through the GI Bill – in winter quarter of 1946, nearly one-third of enrolled students were WWII veterans. 

“In order to meet the demand, a lot of single-story buildings were placed in more of a haphazard manner,” Marfatia explained. 

One of those buildings was the Physics Lecture Hall, a tall, cylindrical building also known as the “Physics Tank,” that was erected on the west by Lomita Drive. The building, built on the same axis as Green Library, blocked the Main Quad’s west side, just as the library blocked the east side. 

If you were a student in the 1950s – and up until the 1990s, when the Physics Tank was eventually torn down to make way for the Science and Engineering Quad (SEQ) – your view looking down the east and west axis of the Main Quad would have been completely obstructed.

But in the 1990s, there was a renewed commitment to return to some of the original intentions Olmsted and Stanford envisioned for the campus – particularly the idea of connecting the campus through interlocking quadrangles, an aesthetic firmly established by the arrangement of the Main Quad. 

Marfatia describes the Main Quad as “a very clever modular design.” It consists of about 25 one-story buildings in two concentric rows connected by inner and outer arcades with open spaces and different architectural elements – particularly the arch – repeating throughout. 

“What is brilliant about it is it creates a continuous rhythm,” said Marfatia, likening it to “a continuous wave” connecting students from one area of campus to another, but also to each other: “The arch creates a community space outside of the buildings for students to interact,” she added. 

Part of the family

If you walk around Stanford today, there is a more cohesive look and feel to it, even with some of the newer designs, like the reimagined SEQ, which was developed in four phases between 2007 and 2014.

SEQ borrows some of the main visual elements established by the Main Quadrangle, particularly the quadrangular arrangement with an arcade surrounding a central gathering space.

As Marfatia describes, “It feels like they’re all of the same family.” 

And yet, both places have their own individual feel and there are notable differences between the two.

For example, all four of the new SEQ buildings are taller than those at Main Quad. They have a different shape – an L – and instead of using sandstone, limestone is used. The roofline is simple and continuous, as opposed to the Main Quad’s complex roof form. 

Huang Engineering Center building, an architectural balance of soft arches and sharp-angled planes.

Huang Engineering Center, part of the Science and Engineering Quad | L.A. Cicero

In addition, the arcade is not embedded onto the building but is applied onto its frame; that is, instead of appearing as part of the building’s façade, the arcade is attached onto the building’s exterior.

The layout is also asymmetrical – a feature that is purposefully emphasized in the design.

“The most important detail to understand the difference between the Main Quadrangle and SEQ is the arch,” Marfatia. “The arch can be used as a way to understand how the design evolves.”

For example, the arches at the SEQ are flatter compared to the arches at the Main Quad, which are also varied: Some are “half-round,” others “extruded,” and at each portal, there are “triple arches.” 

Architecture as a reflection of the times 

Marfatia remembers the first time she came to the Stanford campus, some 20 years ago, to begin her work in Land, Buildings & Real Estate (LBRE), the unit on campus responsible for the stewardship of Stanford lands, its buildings, and real estate assets.

As she walked around the grounds, it was “love at first sight,” she said. “I fell in love with the way the whole campus unfolded.”

In her role as Stanford’s preservation architect, she works with University Architect David Lenox and others at LBRE to adapt and maintain some of the many iconic buildings across campus. 

Marfatia views architecture as a reflection of the times.

“It is dependent on the known technology and the fact that there are social constructs that influence how architecture is realized,” Marfatia said. 

Marfatia also offers two full-day classes, held over a weekend, through Continuing Studies, where she takes members of the community across campus and shares how Stanford has evolved over decades.