What You Don’t Know About Hoover Tower

Built to house the 31st U.S. president’s formidable collection of works about war, its bells still ring “for peace alone.”

September/October 2014

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What You Don’t Know About Hoover Tower

Photo: Joel Simon

The 285-foot art deco edifice is arguably Stanford's most recognizable landmark—and certainly its most visible. From the ground, the tower serves as an orienting beacon for visitors to the sprawling campus. And from the observation deck, 250 feet up, it offers spectacular views of the Farm, Foothills and Bay. Commissioned by Herbert Hoover, Class of 1895, construction was overseen by the architect of Coit Tower, Arthur Brown Jr. The structure was dedicated in 1941 for the university's 50th anniversary. Today the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace complex consists of the tower and three adjacent buildings that house exhibition space and a portion of the institution's archives.

Inside Stories

If it were laid end to end, the shelving required to store the complete collection of works held by the Hoover Institution—both in the tower library and throughout the rest of the compound—would stretch over 25 miles. To make the most of the tower's vertical space, "mezzanines" were constructed between the main levels to create additional capacity in the stacks. While the tower's public elevator shows the observation deck as floor 14, the one used by the library staff also lists all the balconies in between for a total of 21 stops.

Radio Activity

In 2009, audio preservation specialist Jim Sam found a recording of a radio show broadcast during the 1940s that mentioned it was produced "in the radio room of the Hoover Tower." Subsequent research revealed that the room, located on the first floor (now the wheelchair-accessible entrance), was originally used to monitor foreign military broadcasts and to transmit news from the Office of War Information to the front during WWII. Later it was used to record radio programs such as "Wealth of the West," which discussed public affairs of the time.

Lightning Rod

The Hoover Institution's reputation as a conservative think tank has at times put it at odds with other groups on a largely progressive campus. In 2006, more than 1,000 students, faculty and community members demonstrated, forcing a meeting between then-President George W. Bush and Hoover fellows to be relocated off-campus. And in 2007, nearly 4,000 faculty, staff, students and alumni signed a petition objecting to the appointment of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a distinguished visiting fellow. Once, in December 1970, the tower was literally struck by a bolt of lightning, obliterating the 300-pound concrete finial, fragments of which landed as far as 50 feet away.

Not(e) Worth(y) Beans?

Between 1975 and 2000, the institution library received several large shipments—47 manuscript boxes, 29 cubic foot boxes and 44 card file boxes—of materials pertaining to Ronald Reagan's political career. Included in one of the boxes was his personal collection of jelly beans. The Hoover archivists debated whether or not the confections constituted proper archival material; eventually they were sealed up and added to the collection. They have since been moved to the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

Peace, A Chord

A giant "music box" apparatus occupies the tower's 13th floor. The original carillon was part of the 1939 World's Fair in New York. It was gifted to Hoover by the Belgian government and was used regularly until the playing mechanism was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In 2000, the 35 original bells, the largest of which is inscribed "For Peace Alone Do I Ring," were sent to a foundry in the Netherlands where their musical qualities were put to the test. Eleven were replaced and 13 others added to create an instrument capable of tonal accuracy instead of what retired archivist Elena Danielson, MA '70, PhD '75, characterized as "cheerfully clangy."

Hannah I.T. Brown is a Stanford intern.

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