Pride of Place

RECAPTURING THE PRIDE OF PLACE
Amid a Billion Dollar Building Boom,
The Struggle to Distill an Architectural Vision

By Michael Cannell


O
 n May 14, 1887, Leland Stanford laid the cornerstone at his Palo Alto estate for a university built in his son’s memory. Pulleys lowered the waist-high block into place, and an encircling throng of workers and dignitaries watched him trowel the mortar that sealed it. His wife, Jane, stood nearby in a black Victorian dress.

Stanford had devoted his life to building the Central Pacific Railroad. When his 15-year-old son died of typhoid fever during a European tour, he shifted his energies to the design of Leland Stanford Junior University. In collaboration with the preeminent landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, he built a lowslung compound of courtyards in imitation of the rustic local missions.

It was the genesis of a distinct Stanford style characterized by terra cotta roofs, carved sandstone arcades that shade scholars from the California sun and palm trees hovering like verdant clouds over the courtyards - a composition Olmsted called “gloria in excelsis.”

More than a century later, campus officials are trying to restore the spirit of the original plan. Like other universities that suffered decades of unchecked development, Stanford is searching its institutional soul for the appropriate way to graft new architecture onto old. Provosts and deans everywhere face the same dilemma: Should they freeze their architectural heritage under glass, like a campus version of Williamsburg, Virginia? Or solicit the best current design ideas?

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SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1996

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