By Christopher Reynolds, REPORTING FROM PALO ALTO
October 30, 2008
I've never taken an antidepressant, but if the time comes, I'm hoping
the effect will be like that of driving onto the Stanford campus for
the first time.
As the towering palm trees march past in the raking light of a fall
afternoon, the gentle declivity of a grassy oval comes into view,
gamboling youths upon it and a cluster of red blossoms in the shape of an "S."
Then you notice the first stately sandstone buildings, the glittering
Memorial Church facade beyond them, a beaming undergrad gliding down
an arcade on her bike. And as a gentle breeze brushes past the campus
lake and golf course, you try to imagine a bitter argument between
those who say these buildings are more Richardsonian Romanesque and
those who insist they're more rooted in Mission Revival.
But ultimately, you find yourself asking: What is there on this Earth
to worry about, really?
OK, maybe getting in. Or affording tuition. But if you're just here
to drink in the atmosphere, Stanford is just plain dreamy.
My wife, Mary Frances, 4-year-old daughter, Grace, and I rolled in on
a Friday, peeked at the campus, then headed back to University
Avenue, the main drag. We crept along under the tree-lined street,
gazing at the gleaming shops, the twinkling lights strung in the
trees, the lines for Miyake and Thaiphoon, the crowds at Madison &
Fifth and the Cheesecake Factory.
Eventually, we settled in a block off University at the Palo Alto
Creamery, a bustling soda fountain and grill that traces its history
to the 1920s. This is a family-friendly place with the usual
nostalgic overtones but also an extra sheen of affluence. Along with
the sandwiches and shakes, risotto was on the menu, as was the Bubbly
Burger -- a hamburger with a bottle of Dom Perignon for $195.
"We sell a couple a month," Eric Beamesderfer, Creamery operations
director, told me later. "After all, we are in Palo Alto."
The real world seems even farther away when you stroll the
university-owned Stanford Shopping Center, where Neiman Marcus,
Burberry and company ply their wares.
No doubt, they're feeling some of the current economic
unpleasantness, but I couldn't see any sign of the strain among the
shopping throngs that day. And the security guards looked really
cool, patrolling by Segway.
Palo Alto (population about 58,000 in 24 square miles) counts itself
among the wealthiest U.S. college towns, with a median income of
$90,000 (twice Berkeley's) and a median home price around $1.4 million.
Based on the few ragged folks I saw hanging around Lytton Plaza, I
would have estimated the city homeless population at, oh, 17, but
Santa Clara County counted 196 here last year. (Five years ago,
Alameda County estimated Berkeley's at 830.)
We slept at the Stanford Park Hotel, a U-shaped '80s building that's
a short drive to campus but just across the line in Menlo Park.
Everything went right: our spacious $189 room, the swimming pool,
even the courtyard wedding that we half-crashed (peeking down from
our second-story window above the harpist). And because it's mostly a
business hotel, rates are usually lowest on weekends. (If you insist
on greater luxury, there's a Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley in
East Palo Alto, and in April, the Rosewood Sand Hill is scheduled to
open in Menlo Park.)
In town, we breakfasted in the sun at the University Cafe and shared
dinner on the patio at La Strada, watching the sidewalks fill with
well-heeled walkers. I grabbed coffee at the Prolific Oven and
witnessed the escalating Saturday evening mayhem at the Old Pro, a
popular sports bar.
And even though atmospheric Bell's Books gave us a very happy hour of
browsing new, used and rare volumes (collected works of Lord Byron,
1833, $450), the three of us also slipped into Menlo Park for more
book-browsing at Kepler's, where the building had less character but
the business had a remarkable history: The bookstore was founded by
peace activist Roy Kepler in 1955, closed in 2005, then was
resurrected within months by a community campaign.
Our campus tour came on Saturday morning. The core of Stanford is
mostly flat, the grassy expanses broken up by stately old buildings
and dozens of sculptures from artists including Auguste Rodin, Andy
Goldsworthy and Maya Lin.
On the facade of Stanford Memorial Church, a 22,000-tile mosaic
gleamed. And somewhere outside San Jose there's a quarry that gave up
tons of sandstone so this place could project so much gravitas.
Our guide was Ono Nseyo, a 21-year-old biology major and rugby player
from Florida. (Her family is from Nigeria.) She marched about 20 of
us through a 60-minute itinerary, covering topics as diverse as
bicycle traffic and the class time capsules buried near the church.
(A Michael Jackson "Thriller" album rests there.)
The site was a farm before 1885, when railroad magnate and U.S. Sen.
Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane, looking to honor their recently
deceased 15-year-old son, decided to create Leland Stanford Junior University.
With millions to spend and ambitions to compete with the Ivy League,
the Stanfords hired Frederick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame, to
design the landscape. The first students, including Herbert Hoover,
arrived in 1891. Today the campus, a.k.a. the Farm, covers about 8,200 acres.
"That's 27 Disneylands," Nseyo pointed out. "Or 40.8 UC Berkeleys."
(She was counting only the Cal campus' 200-acre central core.)
The student body -- about 6,800 undergrads and 8,200 grad students --
is about 39% Californian, 38% Caucasian and 18% Asian American or
Pacific Islander, with others represented in smaller numbers. About
21% come from other countries (mostly grad students). About 13% are
involved with fraternities or sororities. The university says the
average undergrad living on campus this year will spend $48,938.
About 75% of students receive financial aid.
The faculty of Stanford counts 16 living Nobel laureates and scads of
alumni, beginning with David Packard and William Hewlett of H-P fame,
that have gone on to glory in Silicon Valley. (One Nobelist that
Stanford doesn't count is John Steinbeck, who dropped out not once
but twice in the 1920s.)
"The Stanford bubble," some people call it: Unlike most universities,
Stanford is arranged so that nearly all undergraduates live on
campus, along with most grad students and about 30% of professors.
But the outside world does intrude, and the '60s happened here too.
In 1969, student protesters occupied the Applied Electronics
Laboratory for nine days, opposing the school's connection with
military research. The following year, scores of arrests and injuries
were reported and tear-gas clouds rose -- events that these days can
seem as remote as the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
The biggest campus landmark, the 285-foot-high Hoover Tower, was
completed in 1941 as a homage to President Hoover (who managed the
football team as an undergrad). Though the tower's observation deck
was closed during our visit, it has since reopened, and visitors who
pay $2 can check out the view. Not far from there is the showcase
Bing Wing of Green Library. The comfortable leather chairs are in the
Lane Reading Room. The papers of Allen Ginsberg, Buckminster Fuller
and Huey Newton are in Special Collections.
I glimpsed plenty of other fascinating buildings and would have loved
to have hiked to the Dish (an oversized antenna that is a hikers'
landmark in the hills beyond Lake Lagunita). But that will have to
wait until the next visit, perhaps when they invite us up to give the
kid a full ride.
Our last stop before leaving campus was the Cantor Center for Visual
Arts, an art museum that also includes family artifacts history -- a
spooky casting of young Leland Jr.'s death mask, for instance, and an
oil painting of Jane Stanford's jewelry collection. You know you're
wealthy when you can commission a portrait of your jewels.
Just a few steps away, we found the gold spike that completed the
first transcontinental rail route at Promontory, Utah, in 1869.
The spike was smaller than I expected. But the museum restaurant,
Cool Cafe, more than made up for that. It's run by chef Jesse Ziff Cool.
The atmosphere was nothing revolutionary: a bright room with chalked
specials and a view of a sculpture garden, like many other museum
eateries. But my ham and Cheddar sandwich, concocted with tomato
chutney and honey mustard, made me stop and think: Wow.
I don't know about $48,938 a year, but I can afford $8.75 for that
taste every time.
Reynolds is a Times staff writer.