These Old Houses

A tour of some of the Farm's oldest homes reveals a colorful past, and a few surprises.

November/December 2005

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These Old Houses

Photo: Rod Searcey

The academic novel is a common genre, but the academic real estate novel may belong to Stanford alone. In The Body of Jonah Boyd, novelist David Leavitt writes about the inheritance quandary of a faculty family living on the fictional campus of Wellspring University. Leavitt knows something about the life of a faculty brat: he grew up on the Stanford campus at 743 Cooksey Lane. His book, Leavitt has said, was inspired by Stanford’s particular real estate policy. Because the Founding Grant stipulates that campus land cannot be sold, those who buy a house on campus only lease the land beneath it. Thus they must eventually sell the home back to the University or to other faculty, rather than bequeath it to their children.

Many of Stanford’s 850-plus faculty houses have histories as intriguing as fiction. One housed a unit of the Women’s Army Corps. Another was the scene of a notorious Depression-era murder. And if these walls could talk, almost all of them could exclaim about inflation. Hoover Cottages sold for about $5,000 in the 1930s; today they’re worth more than $850,000. These days, a house tour of the ironically named “faculty ghetto” makes for a rich walk indeed.

Fit for a Queen
Griffin-Drell House, 570 Alvarado Row (1892) 
 Queen Anne style with twin rounded towers, ready to roll

Designed by University architect Charles Hodges, it was the 12th house built along the faculty Row, and so pretty that it was featured on early campus postcards. German professor James O. Griffin, his wife, Bessie, and their black cat (also named Bessie) were the first occupants. After Griffin’s death, the house went through several more owners until physicist Sidney Drell and his wife, Harriet, bought it in 1956. “It’s such a grand old building,” Drell says fondly of his former home, which he sold back to the University last September before moving to a nearby retirement community. “We came with young children, and it had a lot of space and a lot of yard.”

Fortunately, none of the Drells was home when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake sent the chimney crashing. Otherwise damage was surprisingly light, thanks to a massive underpinning of old-growth redwood beams. That sturdy construction will be a big plus as the house enters its next chapter. To make way for the new Munger graduate student apartments, campus restoration experts are planning to jack up and move the entire house about a block away, near the Law School.

Great Curb Appeal
Alta Vista Gatehouse (1900) 
 Victorian charmer, spacious wooded property, mature oaks, golf course views

This home, visible from the intersection of Junipero Serra Boulevard and Campus Drive West near the entrance to Stanford Golf Course, is all that remains of a 17-acre estate owned by Charles Lathrop, Jane Stanford’s younger brother and the University’s first treasurer and business manager. According to campus archeologist Laura Jones, the original main house was a grand country manor with roaming pet peacocks, a shady veranda and a spacious ballroom where the Lathrop daughters would host dances known throughout the Santa Clara Valley for their gaiety.

After Lathrop’s death, his widow occupied the main house until 1949; several years later it was unceremoniously demolished to make way for the Center for Behavioral Research. For many years, the remaining five-bedroom gatehouse was occupied by Stanford firefighters and their families, and then briefly by students. More recently it’s been the home of Ruben Silvera, assistant superintendent for the Stanford Golf Course, his wife, Maria, and their two adult sons. “Keeping it up has been a lot of work,” says the Portuguese-born Silvera, “but we like living here.” And you can’t beat the commute.

Cozy Cottages 
Santa Ynez, Salvatierra & Lasuen Streets (1924-25) 

 Red tile roofs, thick stucco walls, built-in storage, ceramic tile decoration

In 1922, when Herbert Hoover was serving as the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, he had an inexpensive demonstration house built in a Washington park as part of his “Better Homes for America” campaign. The project inspired his architecture-loving wife, Lou Henry, to oversee the construction of seven similar dwellings for young Stanford faculty, who faced a severe housing shortage.

Working according to Mrs. Hoover’s specifications, architect Birge Clark drew plans for a cluster of charming one-story houses reminiscent of a Spanish or Mexican mission village. Prices ranged from $4,500 to $7,200. As Clark recalled in his memoirs, “There had been considerable publicity given to the fact that these houses would be built, and Mrs. Hoover was somewhat dismayed and amused when the first three purchasers who appeared were women employees of the university—executive secretaries, managers of dining rooms, dormitories, etc.”

One of the cottages became notorious as the site of a gruesome ’30s campus murder mystery when owner Allene Thorpe Lamson, ’26, MA ’28, was found bludgeoned to death in her bathtub. Her husband, David, ’25, an executive with the Stanford University Press, was arrested and sentenced to death. After several retrials, the conviction was overturned, and Lamson went on to gain fame as a Hollywood scriptwriter. His first movie, We Who Are About to Die, was based on his experiences at San Quentin.

Perfect for Entertaining
Hoover House (1919)

 Adobe atmosphere, carved oak moldings, leaded windows, hilltop views

This well-known San Juan Hill landmark—home of Stanford University presidents since 1944—was conceived during World War I by trustee Herbert Hoover, Class of 1895, and his wife, Lou Henry, Class of 1898. Initially, Mrs. Hoover thought she’d hire architect Louis Christian Mullgardt, who had designed posters for Hoover’s Belgian war relief efforts. But after Mullgardt indiscreetly boasted about the project to reporters, she turned to Stanford art department chair Arthur B. Clark and his son, Birge, a Columbia University-trained architect.

Working closely with Mrs. Hoover, the Clarks came up with a modern plan that evoked the whitewashed terraces of a Moorish hill town. Although business and government travels prevented the couple from using the house as much as they would have liked, “both considered this their real home, to which they returned as often as possible, and where they chose to reside on important occasions,” Paul V. Turner, the Paul L. and Phyllis Wattis Professor of Art, writes in Mrs. Hoover’s Pueblo Walls (Stanford University Press, 2004). It was here, for example, that “a large group of students and others, including John Philip Sousa and his band, surged up to the house to cheer the president-elect and his family” on the eve of his election in November 1928.

After Lou Henry’s death in 1944, her husband gave the house to the University for use as the president’s residence. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985.

Unique Ambience
The Knoll (1918)

 Stately executive home, spacious public areas, great acoustics

This hilltop mansion served as the official campus residence of Stanford’s third president, Ray Lyman Wilbur, from 1918 until 1943. Its rather sepulchral exterior—a Spanish baroque style known as Churrigueresque—seems in keeping with the location, a former graveyard that Jane and Leland Stanford once considered as a site for their mausoleum. Architect Louis Christian Mullgardt, best known for the DeYoung Memorial Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, designed the structure with lavish presidential entertaining in mind.

But its early detractors were many, including Herbert Hoover, who once likened it to an insane asylum, and student cartoonists, who lampooned its extravagance in the Stanford yearbook. After Wilbur’s retirement, his successor, Donald B. Tresidder, ’19, MD ’27, chose to live at Hoover House. Later the Knoll sheltered a wartime unit of the Women’s Army Corps and Stanford’s geography department before the arrival of its most recent occupants, the department of music and center for computer research in music and acoustics (CCRMA). Today, says administrator Tricia Schroeter, “We all refer to it lovingly as the haunted house.”

Badly damaged by Loma Prieta, the mansion has undergone a major seismic renovation that also has restored some of the grandeur of its public spaces. New amenities include a “listening room” that permits full-spherical loudspeaker arrangements, recording studios, a 100-seat performance hall, and a lobby that will hold exhibits on the history of music technology.

Hidden Treasure
Escondité Cottage (1875)

 Victorian Gothic and Italianate style, short walk to local schools

During the mid-1870s, Jean-Baptiste Paulin Caperon—a wealthy exiled Frenchman who traveled on the Swiss passport of his deceased cousin, Viscount Peter Coutts—came to California and bought 1,400 acres adjoining the Palo Alto property of Leland Stanford. This board-and-batten cottage, which Caperon built for his family on what is now Escondido Road, was intended as temporary lodging until he could finish a brick mansion. Just seven years later, though, Caperon decided to return to France. He sold the ranch, livestock, cottage and all its furnishings to his wealthy next-door neighbors.

During the University’s infancy, the cottage housed campus architect Charles Allerton Coolidge. Later it was home to President David Starr Jordan and his family, who dubbed it Escondité, a Frenchified version of the Spanish word for hidden. Although Jordan’s wife, Jessie, reportedly hated the place for its lack of modern plumbing, students came to know it well: Stanford’s first entrance exams were administered on the veranda.

These days, it serves as the administration office for the Escondido Village graduate housing complex. Assistant dean of students Andrew Hernandez works in what used to be the living room. Although he says the place is “freezing cold in winter”—and a bit creepy when he’s working there late at night (rumors are there’s a female ghost in a long white dress)—Hernandez delights in sharing the house’s history with visitors: “I’m sure that Jane Stanford and David Starr Jordan sat here many times, making plans for the University.”

Architect’s Dream
Hanna House (1936) 

 Japanese aesthetic on a hilly 1.48-acre lot, hexagon tiling

Stanford education professors Paul and Jean Hanna were fans of the progressive “learning by doing” principles espoused by famed educational philosopher John Dewey. So when they hired Frank Lloyd Wright to build his first Northern California house for them along Frenchman’s Road in the early 1930s, they were hoping for a place where their children could roam happily. Wright, eschewing right angles, designed a casual house based on what he called the welcoming “to and fro” geometry of the hexagon. It contained a large central playroom and thin, prefabricated walls that could be unbolted from the floor and moved to suit the family’s needs.

In 1975, the Hannas gave their distinctive brick-and-glass house to the University. It served as the provost’s residence until 1989, when its central chimney and fireplace—notwithstanding Wright’s assurances about the building’s seismic integrity—were severely damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake. Now restored, Hanna House serves as a University conference and reception facility and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

The Stanford Historical Society has produced several booklets detailing many of the University’s historic faculty houses. For more information, visit the society’s website

THERESA JOHNSTON, ’83, is a frequent contributor to Stanford.

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