Is Stanford a mausoleum?

Nov. 4, 2019, 1:13 p.m.

What is Stanford? Is it a university, a place of learning and research? Is it, to be provocative, to nurture talent for multinational technology companies? The answer is of course, all this and more. Stanford takes on the imprimatur of Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

One of the crucial identities of this institution is often overlooked, yet is foundational to the design and architecture of the campus: Stanford was and remains a mausoleum. It is an extensive and elaborate series of structures meant to commemorate the death of Leland Stanford Jr., who died at the age of 15 from typhoid fever in 1884. It is his name which graces the University, not that of his parents (and founders), Leland and Jane Stanford.

Conceptual artist Mark Dion’s curatorial intervention at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts this autumn repurposes items from the Stanford Family Collection to create a late nineteenth-century kunstkammer (or Cabinet of Curiosities) for the life of young Leland, providing a salutary reminder of the origins of the university. Yet the atmosphere of death extends far beyond just this exhibit.

It is important to recover the history of the University because in so doing, we are able to better establish the institution’s identity – one not necessarily characterized by a mutable mission which changes with each administration’s ‘strategic vision,’ but rather one that is based in its origins and architectural texture. Stanford likes to present itself as a forward-focused research institution which grapples with the problems of today and tomorrow; yet this takes place in an environment which is meant to evoke mortality, mourning and corporeality.

When Leland Stanford Junior University was founded in 1891, Leland Stanford senior had already been governor of California and was a Republican senator for the state. His millions made as president of the Central Pacific Railroad, he is a fair avatar for the Gilded Age: industrialist, politician, philanthropist, the contours of each bleeding into one another until they become indistinguishable. Naturally, this meant that the university he founded in memory of his son would become a visual and spatial compendium of their lives, an autobiography mapped out onto farmland south of San Francisco.

It was Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University, who, upon being asked by Leland Stanford whether to found a museum, technical institute, or university, recommended the latter. Under such circumstances, only the finest architect would do. Stanford contracted Frederick Law Olmsted to lay out the campus master plan — Olmsted, one of the key innovators in landscape architecture, had been behind Central Park in New York City. When his portrait was painted by John Singer Sargent in 1895, the artist chose to depict Olmsted surrounded by multifarious flora and fauna. The decision to hire Olmsted signaled Stanford’s vision for his university to be a pastoral environment; perhaps more importantly though, it implied that the layout and relationship of campus buildings to one another was at the forefront of Stanford’s mind. They were going to mean something.

Looking at photographs of Stanford from the 1890s from the university’s digitized Historical Photographic Collection, it is possible to begin to mentally reconstruct campus as Leland Stanford had intended it. Indeed, much survives from the University’s foundation and one of Olmsted’s most important designs remains, the mile-long straight of Palm Drive, which stretches from the Main Quad past shady trees until it reaches the train station. In other words, standing under the Memorial Archway, early students and visitors would know exactly what had built the institution: the railroad and the wealth Stanford had accrued from it.

The Memorial Arch is no longer extant, felled by the 1906 earthquake, but in photographs we can see that this Romanesque edifice would have dominated the then-small campus. Visually, it rhymed with the Memorial Church’s spire and, in utilizing the connotations of triumphal arches, immediately situated the urban space as one invested in its own past. I think this is a crucial point: with the church, arch, and Palm Drive placed in a direct line, a whole story emerges. The railroad is where the familiar wealth and political power arose from; the Memorial Arch commemorates their success; and ultimately we are lead towards the church, founded to save the soul of a boy. Olmsted’s plan tells a story, but it is a story which ultimately ends in death.

Originally, the family’s bronze statue, sculpted by Larkin Mead and with Leland Jr. placed on the highest pedestal, was located in the center of the Main Quad. It would have inspired intrigue in connection with the surrounding architecture, with its quotation of cathedral cloisters. The University, as an institution, began life in medieval Europe as a religious establishment, often adjacent to churches and abbeys, and adopted similar representational codes. Thus, American patrons of colleges felt it to be de rigueur to include such motifs as cloisters in nineteenth-century university architecture, especially as Stanford was a West Coast institution which needed to prove its mettle in comparison to more august and storied East Coast rivals.

Yet by placing the family monument in the middle of the quad, buttressed by the church and the arch, the sculpture emphasized not only that this was the space of the Stanford family, but this was also an urban environment constructed and oriented to mark the death of Leland. All this is here because of the boy on the pedestal. 

The family mausoleum, located in the University arboretum, was set among well-trimmed lawns, tastefully at a distance from the main campus. With its Egyptian sphinxes, it invokes the architecture of Giza, another monument to mortality and the afterlife — for indeed, Leland’s afterlife is the very fabric of the University itself.

The morbidity that Stanford and Olmsted integrated into the layout of the campus, mingling autobiography and tragedy, became part of the subsequent history of the family and the university. When Leland Stanford the elder died in 1893, it nearly crippled the university financially, his wealth tied up in a lawsuit; and subsequently his wife Jane Stanford was murdered by strychnine poisoning in 1905, which the first University president David Starr Jordan proceeded to cover up in order to avoid scandal, claiming she had died of natural causes. Coupled with the 1906 earthquake, the early history of the University was marked by death and calamity, qualities the university has subsequently been reluctant to emphasize.

The family statue was later moved near the mausoleum; the memorial arch was not rebuilt; and slowly, subtly the Stanford family became a talisman of benevolent philanthropy rather than an odd, calamitous trio, unable to escape the randomness of death which struck rich and poor alike at the turn of the 20th century. When we uncover their story, filing through the fading sepia images of the University during its first decade, we can begin to experience once again the miasma of loss and destruction which has plagued this campus. 

Does this make Stanford a mausoleum? If the decades have done much to dispel the aura of death, then I think it can still be found, hidden in plain sight, these traces of catastrophe. In doing so, it resituates how we think about Stanford in the present. Not as an enduring research University exploding the frontiers of science, but as an institution founded in the midst of collapse, impermanence and perishability. It is helpful in the present moment to recover such instability, for paradoxically, engaging with ideas of destruction and renewal enables us to imagine an alternative Stanford University. When we realize that Stanford’s history has always been marked by transformation, that it is in fact an integral part of the University’s identity, then it is possible to envision how change — radical change — is possible. By recovering the past, it helps us understand that the future of Stanford is far from secure and far from determined. To be a mausoleum is liberating.

Contact Altair Brandon-Salmon at absalmon ‘at’

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