[MAGAZINE] Exploring Stanford through history with Tom DeMund’s ‘Walking the Farm’ [copy ep]

Oct. 23, 2017, 2:20 a.m.

Unlike most new students to Stanford, my first view of campus was on the day I arrived to move in shortly before autumn quarter began. I explored after arriving, weaving my way through wrong turn after wrong turn to find Tressider and pick my Stanford ID card, walking through the Quad and snapping pictures for Facebook in front of Memorial Church and the palm trees along Palm Drive (and tagged that pic with a palm-related pun). Since I’d already decided to attend Stanford (and moved in), taking a tour now seemed low on the priority list in the whirlwind of orientation activities, class registration, actual classes, studying and joining clubs.

When I heard about a new book written by a Stanford alumnus with themed walks that take readers all over campus, I figured it might be time for me to stop being on the go and start looking around, taking in my new surroundings. Thus, I picked up “Walking the Farm: 18 Themed Walks Exploring the Stanford Campus Plus 20 Local Hikes from the Foothills to the Bay,” by Tom DeMund and Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West.

In the book’s foreword, David M. Kennedy, History Professor and Emeritus of the Bill Lane Center, tells readers: “To walk the farm with [DeMund] — or to walk with his fine book in hand — is not only to limber the limbs and bask in sunshine and breathe fresh air, but to be instructed in the rich legend and lore of the Stanford campus.” Those encouraging words were convincing enough to send me on what would be my first of several exploratory adventures.

It was late afternoon when I set out on foot, preparing to tackle a walk titled “A 60 Year Flashback Stroll on Old Fraternity and Women’s Residences Row.” More than 50 years ago, this area was considered Stanford’s official fraternity and sorority row, something most universities are known for having. Today, the buildings and large houses featured in this walk are still used for student residences, though only a few are Greek-affiliated. I’m not a sorority girl myself — and haven’t really had much interest in their history before — but when taking this flashback walk, I was sucked into all of it.

It was fascinating how the first of dozens of sororities formed at Stanford in 1892, but in 1944, the University Board of Trustees decided they were fed up with all the competition, and the Board voted to ban all sororities indefinitely, turning the former sorority houses were turned into women’s residences. It took 37 years for sororities to reappear at Stanford, with Delta Gamma being the first in 1977, but even then, sorority houses weren’t approved on campus until 1998. I also found it interesting that the board hadn’t decided to remove all the fraternities — surely the male students were just as competitive in their house rivalries as their female counterparts? Even though I hadn’t set out on this journey to get wrapped up in fraternity and sorority drama, it was impossible not to think about how much change had happened in the span of just a few blocks of campus.

Eventually I quit looking at the included map and began to trust the written directions DeMund provides for readers. DeMund’s skill of providing just the right amount of historical content to entertain, but not bore, reluctant historians like myself made the experience very enjoyable for me. In addition, his conversational first-person narrative made the experience far more personal and intimate, like having a friend guide me through his old stomping grounds. It felt like hardly any time had passed when I returned to the end of Lasuen Mall, where my trip had begun, and I was immediately eager to try another of DeMund’s guided tours.

Staying with the Stanford residences theme, I next chose to explore what DeMund calls the “Noteworthy Residences Loop.” During this two-and-a-half-mile walk, I ventured up a hill not far from Tressider to check out the Knoll, a beautiful pink mansion, which used to be home to each of the University’s presidents until 1943. The pink mansion on the hill served a number of duties since 1943, including housing a Women’s Army Corps during WWII. Today, Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) is located here, after a hefty interior renovation project prepped the space for the job. After the Knoll, I retraced, per the author’s directions, some of my earlier walk down the old fraternity and sorority row and then ended up winding through neighborhood streets where beautiful, architecturally unique houses sit — many of them providing homes to Stanford faculty members.

The most interesting house to me was the Hanna House on Frenchman’s Road. Though it isn’t fully visible from the street where I stood, the book provides a great photo that makes it possible to visually fill in the blanks. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the house is definitely unique with its geometric hexagonal shape, but the most interesting part definitely lies in its history. Wright designed the house for a married couple of educators and their three kids, who needed a nice home on a small budget, with construction completed in 1937. Nearly 50 years later, the Hanna family donated their home to Stanford, but the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake did extensive damage to the place, making it unlivable. In 1991, preservationists jumped in to ensure Wright’s original design and artistic interpretation remained. This led to a four-year battle over how to reconstruct this house, and the reconstruction project ended up costing around $2 million and 10 years to complete.

Continuing onto new adventures, pages 88-94 in “Walking the Farm” are devoted to what the author named “My Favorite Campus Walk.” I initially thumbed through the book in a similar manner to how one might view a cookbook, glancing at photos and bold-lettered headings. After skimming DeMund’s favorite walk on campus, I quickly shifted that one to the bottom of my to-do list, mostly because it covered areas of campus I’d seen already. At that time, I was more eager to see new parts of campus, but after covering over four miles under DeMund’s guidance, I wanted to know what he thought of these iconic spots at the heart of campus.

The beginning of the walk led me to Rodin Sculpture Garden and then up to where the Memorial Arch once stood. I spent more than a minute admiring the view looking towards the Oval, soaking in the California sunshine and thinking about where I was a year ago, how far away my home in central Illinois seems and how lucky I am to live here, gifted with the chance to see this view every single day. I couldn’t help but wonder if this affection for Stanford’s campus and its beauty was simply a honeymoon phase of sorts, and eventually I won’t see it the same way. Nevertheless, I thought about how many times DeMund must have taken this walk to be able to provide such detailed descriptions, and he still found the campus compelling enough to write an entire book about it.

In total, I completed eight of DeMund’s themed walks on campus (thus far) and also had the pleasure of meeting and talking with the author following an on-campus event celebrating the release of “Walking the Farm.” I was curious about why he divided the book into themed walks rather than geographic locations, and he replied, “It’s impossible for visitors to see the whole campus in a one visit.” For example, “If a family of an athlete comes to visit, they’ll want to see the athletic facilities but might not have time for more.”

This led me to ask Tom when his own exploration of campus began. He explained how during his first year, the one male dorm at the time was filled to the brim, and he was housed in overflow housing all the way in Menlo Park. He drove to campus every day that first year. Watching Stanford grow and change, returning frequently for football games and alumni events, is what inspired the guided exploration.

Since I had already experienced Tom’s favorite walk through his book, I had to ask him about his second favorite. He had an answer ready: the sculpture walks, as “there’s so much art to see in one place.”

Being an older, non-traditional transfer student, I came to Stanford feeling more than a little out of place. There were times in those first couple of weeks, while walking around campus, that I half-expected someone to emerge from an office and tell me that I’d wandered into private property. Despite my excitement, my amazement of everything around me, this place still felt like a stranger. Even when I set out on my first themed walk of Stanford, I expected it to be a lot like my other campus walks — lots of guessing, hypothesizing about which students might live in a certain residence hall or why Panama Mall seems to be the shunned cousin among the other magnificently landscaped campus malls. Nevertheless, with Tom DeMund’s trustworthy conversational narrative, soon I was no longer walking alone.

The more I learn about this campus and its history, the more it begins to feel like home. I encourage anyone who has a desire to get to know this place and shift from feeling like an outsider to being on the inside to check out “Walking the Farm.” Like a recipe book, “Walking the Farm” is a novel you can keep on your shelf and test out one recipe (or in this case, one walk) at a time, because Stanford is a place where many of our dreams and goals will be accomplished, and we all deserve to know it to its fullest.


Contact Julie Cross at jcross80 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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