The president and the first lady: love on the farm

May 15, 2012, 3:02 a.m.

The love story that blossomed between Herbert Hoover, class of 1895, who would become the 31st President of the United States, and Lou Henry, class of 1898, his future wife, while they were undergraduates at Stanford is a classic example of senior boy meets freshman girl — except the two did not meet at Full Moon on the Quad or at a Screw Your Roommate event.

The president and the first lady: love on the farm
Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover's love story has its roots in the Stanford Geology Department and expands across the globe, though the couple eventually returned to Palo Alto after Hoover's presidency. (M J. MA/The Stanford Daily)

In fact, “screw your student” might be a more accurate description of their first date, as Herbert and Lou were set up on a date by their geology professor.

Herbert was a senior majoring in geology when he first met Lou in the office of John Branner, head of the Geology Department.

“There was a sly twinkle in his eye as he [Dr. Branner] said: ‘Miss Henry, this is my assistant, Herbert Hoover. Hoover, this is Lou Henry, our first woman in the Geology Department,” reported the November/December 1904 issue of The Stanford Review magazine.

At first, Herbert was not particularly interested in Lou, but it wasn’t long before Branner’s wife arranged for them to have lunch at her house. By the end of the luncheon, Lou had captured Herbert’s heart.

“His college habits began to change,” the magazine reported. “He even joined the callers waiting in the conspicuous Roble reception hall for their girls to answer the bells in the upstairs corridors.”

Although both Lou and Herbert majored in geology, Lou had a strong interest in natural history, Latin and English, while Herbert loved science and mathematics. In fact, the July 22, 1928 issue of The New York Times Magazine reported that Herbert did not pass his English exam until an hour before graduation.

After they both graduated, Herbert and Lou married in 1899 before leaving for China, where Herbert would serve as the head engineer for Bewick, Mooring & Co, a London mine management firm. The couple traveled the world until 1917, when Herbert was appointed to lead the U.S. Food Administration during World War I.

Before the end of the war, the Hoovers commissioned Louis Christian Mullgardt, the architect of the Knoll, to design a home for them near the Stanford campus. However, Mullgardt publicized the job before the war was over, which led to the termination of his contract because the Hoovers were worried that the publicity would suggest that Herbert was not focusing his energies on the war effort but rather on the construction of his new home.

After the war ended, the Hoovers returned to Palo Alto and convinced Arthur B. Clark, a Stanford art professor, to take on the role of architect. While Clark was the primary designer of the house, Lou also contributed her own ideas to the blueprints and actively oversaw its construction.

In a letter written to her friend Anna H. Rult in the years following World War I, Lou suggested that the Hoovers intended for their house to be built in a style that mirrored that of the rest of the Mission Revival architecture of the campus.

“My husband and I had said we wanted this house to be a collection of rooms where we wanted them for living purposes, enclosed by plain wall surfaces,” Lou wrote. “Of course in visioning the result before it was built, we felt that it was in decided harmony with the architecture of the University on whose campus it sits.”

Although the house, which finished in 1920, was the couple’s only permanent residence throughout their marriage, they only resided there for a short while before Herbert was appointed Secretary of Commerce under President-Elect Warren G. Harding in 1921. Their family eventually moved back in 1932, after Hoover’s term as president ended.

In 1944, after the death of his wife, Herbert deeded the house to the University as a home for professors. It now serves as the private residence of the University president.

Although more than half a century has passed since the Hoovers left the Stanford campus, the legacy of their presence can still be seen from miles away — literally — in the form of Hoover Tower, which was sponsored and founded by Herbert in 1919 to house his collection of war documents. The collection, renamed the Hoover War Library in 1922, eventually became the largest library in the world dealing in World War I memorabilia. The tower itself was completed in 1941, reaching a height of 285 feet, and grew to include documents from the interwar period, World War II and the Cold War.

As evidenced by their architectural and institutional vestiges on campus, the Hoovers’ legacy — and love story — remain landmarks on the Farm.

— Stephanie Wang

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