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Reclaiming the Visions of Leland Stanford and Frederick Law Olmsted

Stephen Kelly, editor

The SWA design for Stanford Branner Hall integrates four historic magnolia trees on site to create a new entry courtyard of precast pavers and cast-in-place concrete seatwall. In addition, a renovated interior courtyard includes the new fountain and seating area with new plantings of Salvia leucantha.


The SWA-Stanford University Connection

The SWA Group has been working with Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. for over 25 years and almost 300 projects to reclaim the 100-year old vision of Leland Stanford and Frederick Law Olmsted through a series of campus improvement projects. Integrating the university’s facilities needs with a long-term landscape vision, the projects recover the campus’ historic axes, open space patterns and juxtaposition of formal landscape spaces with naturalistic landscapes within the central campus. SWA’s lead landscape architect for the Stanford projects is John Wong.

ABOVE & BELOW: Stanford Meyer-Buck Estate, a mansion with a seven-acre site was bequeathed as a gift to Stanford University in 1970. The project included the restoration of the early 20th century two-story building and the creation of new gardens based on historical precedents. SWA worked to preserve as much of the original plant material as possible while adding new, drought-tolerant species to create a sense of the historic gardens: a Rhaphiolepsis indica hedge, Washingtonia filifera and Trachycarpus fortunei palms and agave succulents. The historic structure of the original house (below), now painted blue, has become a gazebo design element in the estate garden.

Stanford Foundations

Jane and Leland Stanford established Stanford University in memory of their only child, Leland Jr., who died of typhoid fever at the age of 15 while the family was traveling in Italy. The Stanfords granted their 8,180-acre Palo Alto breeding and training farm for trotting horses and thoroughbreds to the university in Nov. 1885 with the stipulation that it never be sold. The campus is still called “the Farm.”

Leland Stanford was governor of California, twice elected to the U.S. Senate and was one of the “Big Four” (with Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker) who founded the Central Pacific Railroad, the company that would lay track eastward to connect with the westward Union Pacific tracks and make the transcontinental railroad a reality in 1869. An interesting historical footnote, in this year of presidential campaigning, is that Leland Stanford campaigned for the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

The SWA Daper master plan follows several key campus-wide principles: 1) reinforcement of the hierarchy between built areas and open space; 2) preservation and, where necessary, re-establishment of the axial order of the original plan; and 3) enhancement of the formal landscape spaces in juxtaposition to the naturalistic landscape around the central campus.

The cornerstone for the university was laid May 14, 1887—the anniversary of their son’s death—and the inaugural co-ed class of 555—most private universities at the time were all-male—began classes Oct. 1, 1891.

Between the new Sport Center and DeGuerre Pool is a sunken amphitheater for major ceremonial events. The plaza brings the Olmsted plan into focus at a smaller scale by implementing an amphitheater with a simple sloped lawn on one side and an informal native and Mediterranean grove on the other. Antique street globe-style area light lamps (SU-1) are the Stanford standard in the pedestrian zones on campus and in the primary gathering spaces and along malls.

Olmsted’s Vision vs Leland Stanford’s Grand Style

In the summer of 1886, Stanford brought Frederick Law Olmsted to the Farm. He also hired the firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge to design the buildings. Charles Allerton Coolidge, a 28-year-old Bostonian, was the main architect. Stanford, a man of action and ideas, had a definite vision for the campus, and so there were many disagreements about the design.

Lasuen Mall is a realignment of the Olmsted historic north-south axis connecting the buildings such as the Graduate School of Business on the north side of campus with the Student Union to the south. The SWA design includes a new paved walkway with granite curb for the historic Main Quad, new plantings, teak seating, new bike parking enclosure with creative pipe bike racks, screened by clipped Ligustrum japonicum hedges. Lighting was added and realigned to reflect the formal layout of this part of the campus.

Olmsted imagined a naturalistic plan of buildings tucked into the surrounding foothills, with a meandering road surrounded by forests. However, Leland Stanford had a more imposing design in mind—a large, enclosed main quadrangle and a grand palm-lined main entrance drive—totally contrary to Olmsted’s vision.

The Stanford football team is on one of the connective pathway systems to make the transition between the athletic center and the practice fields. Using many fundamental elements of the original 1887 plan, SWA prepared a master plan that creates internal and campus-wide connections and unifies existing and new facilities. SWA elaborates: “It restored the central axes that had been interrupted by roads and traffic and fulfills the original Olmsted design intent for the future addition of four ‘quads.’ It brings the surrounding natural landscape of the California plant palette onto the campus as Olmsted had intended. Unusually long-range vision in planning is a hallmark of Fredrick Olmsted’s work.” Note: The trees are Chinese hackberries.

Stanford got his way. While it’s intriguing to picture a more “naturalistic” setting, some laud Leland Stanford’s concept.

Pac 10 Plaza is Daper’s “front door,” with its large oaks, a new public arrival space featuring flagpoles and sculptural grass mounds. On an event day, thousands of people use the space for pre- and postgame functions.

“More and more I’ve come to think of the original plan of Stanford as one of the most brilliant creations of American campus planning,” says art history professor Paul Turner in his book, Campus: An American Planning Tradition. What made the Stanford quad different from its English antecedents, says Turner, is the huge scale and openness. Turner esteems the resulting California Mission-inspired buildings quarried from local sandstone and the red tile roofs surrounding a cloistered quadrangle with the Memorial Church as the focal point.

The foreground shows a part of the SWA-designed Daper athletic area. New gathering spaces and connections link the various activity centers, from the Arrillaga Sports Center and Maples Pavilion (center and center left) to the pool area and practice areas (lower left). A main gathering space, the Stanford Arrillaga Plaza, forms the connection between the the pool area and the sports pavilions. The tree-lined amphitheater walkway is one of many new pedestrian walkways that connect the Daper athletic areas to the main campus.

The Coolidge architecture was developed in the style of his mentor, Henry Hobbs Richardson. Dubbed Richardsonian Romanesque, it is characterized by “rectilinear stone buildings joined by covered arcades formed of successive half-circle arches supported by short columns with decorated capitals.” The prime building material was a buff sandstone quarried south of San Jose.

The Stanford seal has gone through various iterations since the original in 1908, but has always included a redwood tree. The German phrase on the seal— “Die Luft der Freiheit weht”—means “The wind of freedom blows.”

SWA Group

For over 45 years, SWA Group has been recognized as one of the world leaders in landscape architecture, planning and urban design. SWA Group’s projects have received over 500 awards, been showcased in 47 states and more than 40 countries, and its principals are acknowledged as among the industry’s most talented and experienced designers and planners.

Historically, over three quarters of SWA Group’s work has come from repeat clients. In addition to bringing strong aesthetic, functional and social design ideas to its projects, they are also committed to integrating principles of environmental sustainability.

The redwood, one assumes, references the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) tree that gave Palo Alto (“tall stick”) its name. The 110 feet redwood on the edge of San Francisquito Creek is a California Historic Landmark. The tree is over a thousand years old!

The Classic Residence by Hyatt at Stanford provides seniors with independent and assisted-living facilities. SWA has placed a special emphasis on maintaining the riparian corridor with native planting, using consideration when dealing with the archaeologically sensitive areas of the site, as well as existing recreation trails and landscape amenities such as parks and play areas. Veronica spicata (Spike Speedwell) decorate the roadway.

The SWA design updated the west side of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, connecting this area with the historic Lasuen Mall. This new pedestrian plaza consists of two groves of shade trees (Podocarpus), an intricate pattern of stone cobble, precast concrete banding and pavers, lawn, new cast-in-place concrete seating and pathways to connect the various points of entry. The groundcover beneath the trees is Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Moudry.’

The two new Stanford Arrillaga areas are connected together with cast concrete pavers, new lighting (Antique Street Lamps, the Stanford standard globe-style, SU-1) and drifts of California live oaks to create the “grove” idea. Between the Sports Center and Maples Pavilion, a pedestrian mall accommodates multipurpose gatherings and forms an east focal point. The lavender flowers of Agapanthus africanus ‘Peter Pan,’ a dwarf lily, provide color.

The SWA designed landscape forms a kind of “backyard” with three unique gathering spaces: a large lawn adjacent to the Great Hall for flexible outdoor use, a large paved area and fountain outside the central “living room” and a native plant perennial stroll garden near the offices, café and conference rooms.

The SWA design created two landscape terraces to integrate the existing sculpture garden with the new buildings and outdoor elements and connect the Cantor Center with the larger Stanford campus. The B. Gerald Cantor collection of sculptures here is the largest collection of Auguste Rodin outside Paris. Lavendula angustifolia (left) add color to the pre-existing cypress.

The new pedestrian and bicycle network connects Daper to the rest of the campus. The circulation accommodates existing trees and new oaks reinforce the site’s edges and corridors.


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December 7, 2019, 3:45 am PDT

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