A Gentleman’s Quarrel

Photos: James Notman (left); Stanford University Archives

Frederick Law Olmsted had been in the business of transforming land into landscape about 30 years when, in 1886, he received word that Leland Stanford wanted him to come out to California and design a new university. The two men, both winding down famous careers and turning their attentions to legacy projects, were temperamentally and philosophically unsuited to share a room, let alone the development of iconic architecture. Had Olmsted and Stanford better known each other, they might never have chosen to work together. 

Perhaps Olmsted had some inkling—straying from his standard rate, he asked Stanford for $10,000 for his initial consultation and planning work, a dare-you-not-to-hire-me sum that Stanford paid with apparent indifference.

Olmsted had already designed Central Park, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Boston’s Emerald Necklace and the U.S. Capitol grounds. His understanding of earth and growth bordered on magic. Observing a stony outcrop or barren mudflat, he could see lines of drainage and the run of clear new creeks, project the growth of trees, locate buildings to be simultaneously surprising and inherent. The simple idea of an acreage of quasi-wilderness as a refuge within a city—the great American municipal park—began in large part with Olmsted. One of his contemporaries toasted Olmsted as the artist who best represented America in his work.

As president of both the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads, Leland Stanford had also transformed America. The golden spike completing the first transcontinental railroad was driven to ground at Promontory Summit in the Utah territory by Stanford. His rails transported the labor and materials that created California—or, to tell the story another way, strangled the state in the arms of the iron octopus of proletarian nightmare. There are two headline views of Stanford’s life: wealthy philanthropist or robber baron; builder of the West or, as Ambrose Bierce called him, “£eland $tanford.”  

An early picture of the entrance to Stanford's Main Quad. Past the Quad's border wall is a sizable courtyard with buildings on both sides. At its entrance is a large stone arc. Beyond that is a large oval road which converges some ways down into a single road leading far off into a forest.THE LONG VIEW: Stanford insisted that the campus, pictured here in the early 1900s, should be built on the flats to allow for future expansion. (Photo: Stanford Historical Photograph Collection) Stanford wanted Olmsted because he wanted the best, and Olmsted was that, but Olmsted carried with him a carefully considered aesthetic sensibility that Stanford seemed to have neither heard of nor cared for. At the time, gardening was a high art, fueled partly by the import of exotic species from abroad. Olmsted had no taste for this upper-class cabinet-of-curiosities approach to land. Instead, Olmsted championed a new kind of better-than-nature naturalism. By draining, channeling, shaping and planting the ground, Olmsted created a scene, then allowed wild growth to add the scenery.  

The landscape architect—the new term Olmsted embraced in part to differentiate himself from the gardeners—“sketches the outlines, arranges the colors, and directs the shadows of a picture upon which nature shall be employed for generations before the work he has prepared for her hand shall realize his intentions,” as Olmsted put it in an 1858 letter, at the beginning of his career. Scenery emerged from a totality of subtle details—from the deepening shade of a grove or the natural curve of a creek—an effect shattered by pagodas or prominently planted exotics. When Olmsted hired new young men to his firm, he expected them to study his favorite writers on aesthetics (Uvedale Price, William Gilpin, to name a few) as if they were students-at-law.

The first design Olmsted articulated to Stanford placed the university up in the Foothills, east and a little south of the modern-day Dish. A long, winding approach road led up through sprawling oaks. The buildings nestled into the topography and stands of new trees. Stanford dismissed this concept out of hand. He was building a monument to his dead son. Subtlety and subordination to nature were out of the question. “There is not any word half big enough for his ideas of what it is to be,” wrote Olmsted at the time. The university would go down on the flats for all to see—and where no natural barriers could limit its future expansion. Where Olmsted looked forward to the growth of trees, Stanford expected the future growth of stone and steel.

It had been years since a client—or anyone else—had contradicted Olmsted so bluntly. He remonstrated with Stanford, asking him to raise his sights up off the plain. “The principal buildings of the University could have been placed near the edge of an elevated table land, commanding a fine characteristic California distance,” Olmsted reminded Stanford during one discussion of how to avoid artificiality and base ugliness in a gridded campus. All Olmsted’s instincts and experience directed him into the Foothills, where the natural curvatures and turnings of the land could be built into an intricate, multilayered space, bewitching to eye and mind. Throughout the design process, he regretted Stanford’s siting as a lost opportunity.

There is a pattern to the irregularities of Olmsted’s designs. Roads wind; layouts fall asymmetrically on the land. His plans aren’t chaotic, no more so than the branch of a tree. He loved mystery. “Less wildness and disorder I object to,” he wrote, about the growth around his own home. Little of Olmsted’s work has the formal symmetries and straight lines of the Stanford Quad and Palm Drive.

Should the Stanford campus truly be considered an Olmsted design, or is it in fact Leland Stanford’s? Cathy Blake, university landscape architect and director of campus planning, has been studying Olmsted’s intentions for the university for the past 20 years. She says, emphatically, that while the parameters might have been set by Stanford, the design “belongs to Olmsted.” When Olmsted moved down out of the Foothills and onto the flats, the whole architectural vocabulary of the project changed. He adapted his own aesthetic to the topography, or lack thereof. Nonetheless, certain details clearly belong to Stanford. It’s “no accident,” Blake says, laughing, “that Palm Drive runs straight north to the train station.” 

With the location of the campus settled, Olmsted developed the concept of repeatable, interlocking quads built around interior arcades and long north-south and east-west axes. The Main Quad would be the nucleus, the seed, from which the design spread. Open vistas brought the Foothills down to campus, at least visually. Olmsted surrounded the campus with a sea of trees to provide the feeling of a place apart.

An early design map for Stanford's campus. To the North are the 'Botanical Collections.' Below that is student housing. Above and below the center (Main Quad) are 'Planted Reservations.' To the bottom left is an intermediate school, and to the bottom right a 'Kinder Garten.' Various other features and buildings are spread throughout the design.THE PLAN: In an early design, Olmsted imagined interlocking quads and long axes, with the Main Quad as the centerpiece. (Courtesy The National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site) Beyond the fundamental layout, Olmsted and Stanford continued to argue the details. Olmsted purposefully sought out complex asymmetries. He placed Memorial Church on the west side of the Quad, emphasizing the sightlines to the hills and allowing the Quad to open unexpectedly. Stanford seemed to take great pleasure in vetoing this plan: “The Gov. replied a Landscape Arch’t and an Arch’t might be disappointed but he was going to have his buildings the way he wanted them,” wrote architect Charles Coolidge, reporting back to Olmsted. Stanford turned the Quad, putting the church at the center and creating the kind of grand, flat, postcard tableau antithetical to Olmsted’s vision of a subtle, unfolding design.

Stanford also wanted to fill the Quad with grass—in fact, he wanted lush lawns everywhere on campus, asking for the New England-style turf and trees he had seen while touring the universities of the East. Olmsted reined him in, pointing out that Stanford lived in the West, and if Stanford wanted a model, he needed to look farther afield, to Syria, Greece, Italy or Spain, where the climate matched his own. Olmsted told Stanford that his lawns would be water hogs and eyesores—obvious imports that fit poorly in California. He persuaded Stanford to pave the Quad (he used the grounds of St. Peter’s Basilica as an example). Unfortunately, Stanford chose a cheap asphaltum, which quickly deteriorated, instead of the granite-like paving blocks Olmsted urged. Decades of alternating gravel and asphalt passed in the Quad before Olmsted’s original intention was realized.

Olmsted’s landscape botany was remarkably prescient. Cathy Blake points out that all of Olmsted’s planting guidelines seem to anticipate our era of global warming and multiyear droughts. He promoted perennials over annuals and natives over imports, and the imports he chose originated from arid locales. Blake says she could use Olmsted’s palette of species now with hardly any revision. Climatological practicalities aside, Olmsted had an aesthetic vision that extended over decades. Over a lifetime, a gardener could churn through a great deal of the latest colorful fads and never match the beauty of one well-chosen tree grown in a perfectly suited piece of ground.    

As his career went on, Olmsted planned ever more elaborate arboretums for his clients. At Stanford, trees would surround the campus and stretch up into the Foothills. With a rare opportunity to work in the West, Olmsted intended a living tree museum, featuring a complete library of native trees as well as drought-tolerant species from around the world. To oversee the planting, Olmsted hired a full-time nurseryman who amassed more than 200 species of seedlings on-site by June of 1889 and expected to have 150,000 seedlings transplanted to open ground by July. That was about the time Stanford lost interest in the arboretum project, the plan for which he had green-lighted the year before. Olmsted’s extensive groves no longer suited Stanford, and he was “not going to have the hills covered in trees.” The eucalypti now surrounding Palm Drive share nothing but their location with the diverse woods Olmsted had imagined. Preliminary studies are under way at the University Architect/ Campus Planning and Design Office to revive the arboretum concept both as a constructive part of the campus ecoregion and as an outdoor classroom.

A metallic mural with a mixture of Grecian and modern style. Muscled men are seen throughout, though there is a more modern gentleman to the left and a woman on the right. In the middle are Leland and Jane Stanford on a horse.HISTORICAL TAKE: A frieze carved on the Memorial Arch depicted Leland and Jane Stanford on horseback leading a train over the mountains. (Photo: Stanford News Service)Stanford evidently had no misgivings or mercy about making last-minute changes and demands. During an 1887 meeting at which Olmsted’s team expected to present its finalized layout blueprints to a happy client, Stanford insisted not only on the reorientation of the Main Quad, but also on the addition of a giant Memorial Arch to span the north entrance. Dismayed by the change, the architects copied an unexecuted arch planned for a Civil War memorial in Buffalo, N.Y., and plunked it down where Stanford had indicated. Across the rectangular frame of the arch, Stanford had an artist carve a frieze portraying “the Progress of Civilization of America,” beginning with the mythical figures Civilization, Culture, Meditation and Amenity, progressing to the religious conversion of Native Americans and the march of industrial progress, and ending with Leland and Jane Stanford on horseback leading a locomotive engine over the Sierra Nevada. (A third hand shaped the early university: The 1906 earthquake toppled both the Memorial Arch and the church’s spire, a neo-Gothic witch’s hat affixed atop Memorial Church. Neither was rebuilt, purportedly because of the cost.) 

Both Olmsted and Stanford spent a deal of ink and thought on the nature of civilization. The West remained largely wilderness (at least through the eyes of Olmsted and Stanford), the Civil War was a fresh scar across the nation, and the state of man and the future of America were pressing questions. Olmsted saw civilization as an interior state to be cultivated, a suspension of the ego in favor of deeper mysteries carefully examined. Land required civilizing in order to become landscape, and a similar process pertained to people. Slow, intricate growth created beauty for both scenery and the human mind. For Stanford, civilization was something to be built—more precisely, something he could build—a unidirectional advancement of people and places. And the responsibility for the dissemination of civilization lay upon those who built it. When the death of his son inspired Stanford to turn his attention to the education of all California’s children, he did so with the specific intention of communicating civilizing ideals through his students as they took up work throughout the West. 

A large, slanted sketch of Stanford University. The Main Quad looks similar to how it does now. Although, to its left and right are two smaller quads modeled after it. Surrounding them all is a mixture of paved roads, patches of grass, and forested hills.GRAND COMPROMISE: A later sketch shows central campus as it would be built, with Memorial Church as its focal point. (Courtesy The National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)The two organizing principles—Stanford’s and Olmsted’s—are written in stone on the Stanford campus. In order to create an environment for his students to become “missionaries . . . of civilization,” Stanford styled his buildings on the lines of California’s old Spanish missions and suggested the campus roads be named after padres and Spanish governors. And he placed the church at the center, where a beneficent Christian creator belonged for the highest expression of humanity. Around Stanford’s church, Olmsted crafted an interdisciplinary campus made for the cross-pollination of ideas. A circuit of the Main Quad became a tour of knowledge. The arched walkways led seamlessly from one discipline to the next, and the smaller courtyards offered meeting places between. 

Former university president John Hennessy prizes those smaller courtyards. The wide expanse of the Main Quad is a striking visual, but he locates the real genius of the design in the side spaces, where small groups can gather and work. He sees the last hundred years of increasing academic specialization as an era reaching its end. New construction on campus is no longer for one department or line of inquiry—instead, Hennessy says, “we’re building buildings to facilitate collaboration.”

Olmsted has had other adherents among Stanford presidents. Ray Lyman Wilbur (president from 1916 to 1943) followed the Olmsted plan during his major expansion of the campus. But Olmsted’s influence waned during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s—decades Hennessy calls “topsy-turvy.” New buildings, like Meyer Library and the Physics Tank (a cylindrical concrete bunker that housed the department from 1957 to 1997 and stood immediately outside the west entrance of the Quad), mushroomed up where there was space available, without a cohesive vision for the future. From the perspective of landscape architecture, the campus was adrift. 

Around the time of Stanford’s centennial celebrations, the trustees made a conscious decision to return to Olmsted. The work began during Gerhard Casper’s presidency (1992-2000) and continued under Hennessy. The demolition of the Physics Tank reestablished the long east-west axis of Olmsted’s design and opened ground for the Science and Engineering Quad, expanding the campus through interlocking quads as Olmsted had foreseen in 1887. The work continues. Cathy Blake says that at the University Architect Office, Olmsted’s principles are “ever-present.” 

Hennessy emphasizes that a full appreciation of Olmsted requires remembering to view his work as that of a landscape architect. The whole campus is the art: the interplay of buildings and arcades and courtyards, the forests, the vistas to the Foothills, the sightlines connecting the quads. “One shouldn’t,” Hennessy says, “neglect or violate that plan without careful thought.” 

Olmsted and Leland Stanford never reconciled—the gap between the artist and industrialist proved unbridgeable. Olmsted wrote Stanford painstaking, circuitous letters, as if he could loosen Stanford’s grip on the design process with words for lubrication. One featured an extended parable of a sculptor (Olmsted) and a stonecutter (Ariel Lathrop, Stanford’s designated lieutenant for the construction project). “Imagine,” Olmsted wrote, “a sculptor attempting to produce a statue, through workmen and by processes which a stonecutter would use, throwing overboard all that he has learned of his profession beyond what a stonecutter had learned—imagine this, and it may give you some idea of the position in which I feel Mr. Lathrop demands that we shall place ourselves in.” Stanford replied to Olmsted’s letters with a few sentences or not at all.  

The full breakdown came in 1890, when Lathrop abruptly fired Olmsted’s jobsite foreman, and Stanford offered Olmsted no explanation or remedy. Olmsted suspended his work on the campus. He and Stanford traded a final pair of letters around the time of the university’s opening ceremonies. Olmsted’s was warm and conciliatory: “We have newspaper accounts of the opening of the University under conditions giving the highest promise of ever-increasing beneficence to mankind.” Stanford’s reply came back brief and forced: “We are gradually improving the grounds in accordance with your plans. We have done a great deal of work but there seems to be a great deal more to do.” 

Stanford's drainage and sewage systems, as sketched, are scattered throughout the campus and seem to run off to the bottom left of the map towards nearby county roads.SCULPTING THE LAND: In Olmsted's view, a landscape ‘directs the shadows of a picture upon which nature shall be employed for generations.’ In an 1889 drawing, Olmsted sketches drainage plans for campus. (Courtesy The National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)If it seems remarkable that the university’s emblematic visuals could emerge from a tug-of-war over aesthetics between two such sharply divergent worldviews, Olmsted might agree. Early on, he worried about the mutation of his work into “a mongrel sort of plan.” In truth, Olmsted and Stanford likely balanced each other in a necessary way. At that stage of Olmsted’s long career, obsessed as he was with created naturalism, concealed design and the subordination of structures to scenery, he could well have crafted a university that simply disappeared artfully into the hills. Stanford, meanwhile, might have raised such a self-aggrandizing eyesore as to darken even Ambrose Bierce’s opinion of him. Beyond aesthetic harmony, the complicated fault-lines of Stanford as a university—the conjunction of art and industry, philosophy and technology—are built right into its bones.

Leland Stanford died in 1893. Olmsted retired in 1895 and slid into dementia. Jane Stanford carried on the development work at Stanford until she died in 1905. None of them saw the university out of its infancy, let alone the evolution of what they planted in the Palo Alto soil. Olmsted never saw the completed campus on anything but paper.   

It should not surprise that Olmsted’s ideas, even more than his creations, would outlive him. The far reach of his vision had much to do with his ability to let go, to know that with imaginative groundwork, nature would create more intricacy and beauty than he could possibly fill in with his own hand. This is admirable architecture for a college campus, where students live out the same transformation.


Daniel Arnold, ’01, is a writer based in southern Oregon.