Old Chem: A glimmer of the future for a symbol of Stanford’s past

Jan. 10, 2012, 2:30 a.m.
Old Chem: A glimmer of the future for a symbol of Stanford’s past
(MEHMET INONU/The Stanford Daily)


Stanford’s campus is known for, among other things, its aesthetic beauty, its rich history and its forward-thinking modernity. But the old chemistry building, with boarded-up windows and doors and surrounded by a tall chain-link fence tagged with “No Trespassing” signs, doesn’t quite fit with the last of those three. The building has been unused since 1987, when the University deemed it a structural and fire hazard, and, while other old buildings were repaired after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, Stanford left it a relic. But it may not stay that way for long.


The old chemistry building, built in 1900, was the first reinforced concrete building west of the Mississippi River. It was built on Lomita Drive away from the Main Quad to prevent the rest of the Quad from being affected by potential explosions, according to chemistry professor Michael Fayer. In its golden days, it housed beautiful wooden lecture halls, spiral staircases, student and research laboratories, a library and administrative offices.


“The old chemistry building had real character,” Fayer said.


Then the University built more buildings. By 1974, when Fayer arrived at Stanford, the chemistry department had expanded into the three Stauffer Laboratory buildings west of the old chemistry building.


Fayer conducts his research using lasers, which require very stable conditions. When he arrived at the University, his team was placed in the basement of the old chemistry building, where its antiquity proved useful: there were no vibrations from air conditioners or elevators to disrupt the tranquil environment needed for his work. At the same time, the building also showed signs of deterioration. Asbestos-covered steam pipes lay exposed, and when the carcinogenic material would occasionally fall off the pipes, people in HAZMAT suits had to remove it. The pipes also leaked and Fayer and his team shared their space with rats, which scampered across the floor above.


He recalled one particular game that he and his team played with the rats. “You’d hear this rat running from one side of the ceiling to the other,” he said. “You’d hear the rat running along, and at just the right time, you jumped up and pushed the ceiling up–whoom–the rat couldn’t stop and would just come falling out there and would be running around on the ground.”


To end the rodent infestation, the department tried rattraps. These failed, so they chose to poison the rats. However, the end of one infestation led to the beginning of another.


“All the rats died, and then the flies came,” Fayer said. “We had weeks of dense flies within all the rooms…thousands of flies.”


Many faculty moved their offices to the Mudd Chemistry Building, the Chemistry Department’s new headquarters built in 1977, to avoid such conditions. However, Fayer stayed in the old chemistry building until 1987, when the University drilled into the building and found that the rebar that initially supported the building’s frame had corroded to tubes of rust, making it structurally hazardous. The University deemed the building unfit for earthquake regulations, and shortly thereafter constructed the Keck Science Building, where Fayer now conducts his research. Their findings proved serendipitous, as two years later, the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck the Bay Area.


Bob Wheeler, the facility manager for Zone B (the region of the University where the old chemistry building is located), and his team work to keep the public from accessing the old chemistry building. Occasionally, his team finds compromised windows and doors, and they work to secure these access points. Wheeler believes Stanford hasn’t made changes to the building because “the University hasn’t identified the funding to make the repairs that need to be made to do the seismic upgrade,” he said.


Some, like Wheeler, would move to maintain the building’s appearance and recondition it.


“I’ve always thought that restoring a building from that era would be a wonderful challenge and great fun,” Wheeler said. “It is a piece of history and the architecture then is much different from the architecture now.”


According to Andrew Herkovic, director of communications and development at Stanford University Libraries, the University has discussed turning the old chemistry building into a library, but no specific plans have been made.


Indeed, Stanford’s 2011-2012 capital budget and three-year capital plan lists “Old Chemistry Classrooms with Library” as a delayed project for the School of Humanities and Sciences.


Old Chem: A glimmer of the future for a symbol of Stanford’s past
The old chemistry building stands separately from the rest of the Quad next tothe Oval during the 1946-47 academicyear. The photo was taken with a Brownie camera and was likely shot from Hoover Tower. (Courtesy of Anadel Law)

“To the best of my knowledge, there has been no architectural programming done on that prospective library, other than that it would be poured somehow within the shell of Old Chem,” Herkovic said.


The cost, however, poses a major obstacle to that path forward. In 1999, University planners and administrators estimated that it would cost at least $35 million to renovate the building to adhere to earthquake safety standards, according to the Stanford Historical Society. That estimate has since jumped to $55 million.


Others, like Fayer, argue that keeping the building itself intact isn’t necessarily a priority.


“It would be much cheaper to just tear down the old chemistry building and build a new modern building,” Fayer said. “It would never be useful as a science building. That would be fabulously expensive, because it just doesn’t have the systems for air handling, water and electricity.”


Fayer also identified the potentially toxic problems related to Old Chem. In the early 1900s, scientists poured raw chemicals down the drains (a forbidden practice in modern labs). These chemicals festered in the pipes, and over a long period of time, began to permeate the entire building.


“It’s my guess that it would be almost a toxic waste disposal problem to get rid of what’s in the contaminated wood and all of the stuff that’s in this building…the place is so polluted with 75 years or more of chemicals.”


Instead of trying to save the building or leave it untouched, Fayer suggested replacing it with a new joint chemistry-biology library or another administrative building, optimizing the use of the 60,000 square feet the current structure covers. Alternatively, Fayer said he “wouldn’t mind if they just tore it down and made it into a new grass field.” After “watching it for almost a quarter of century just sit there, it just seems to me like something should happen.”


However, “it is unlikely that the University would demolish this building since it has historical significance,” said Craig Tanaka, director of the Department of Capital Planning and Space Management.


No plans have been approved for the old chemistry building’s future, Tanaka said, but senior administration officials will discuss it during the upcoming capital plan cycle.


Until then, Old Chem is caught in limbo.


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