125 Stanford Stories

NO. 84
Stanford Today

New life for Old Chem

196.5 Old Chemistry bldg near Oval
Old Chem, shown in 2004, was vacant for years before its revival in late 2016 as the Sapp Center for Science Teaching and Learning.
Sheldon Breiner/University Archives
Stanford's original chemistry building across a pre-1906 Oval.
Stanford University Archives
Old Chem would lose almost all its chimneys, along with a chunk of its facade, in the 1906 earthquake.
Stanford University Archives
Old Chem had only been occupied for three years before the 1906 earthquake.
Stanford University Archives
Kay and Glenn White met in an Old Chem laboratory as graduate students and married in 1937.
Department of Chemistry
Old Chem was advanced for its time, but it was showing its age by 1961, when this photo was taken.
Stanford University Archives
Sandstone falling from Old Chem in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake crushed this Ford Granada seconds after its driver, a chemistry graduate student, had gotten out.
Stacy H. Geiken/Stanford News Service
The building’s restoration combines old design with new classrooms for chemistry and biology that enhance hands-on instruction and exploration.
Joy Leighton

Sapp Center for Science Teaching and Learning repurposes a Stanford landmark

In late fall 2016, a historic building off the Stanford Oval that’s stood vacant for nearly three decades will reopen as an interdisciplinary center for undergraduate science learning. 

The Sapp Center for Science Teaching and Learning is an extensive remodeling of Stanford’s original chemistry building, completed in 1902 by Jane Lathrop Stanford and vacant since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. 

Spatially and conceptually, the Sapp Center will anchor Stanford’s future Biology Chemistry Quad northwest of the Main Quad. Its adaptive classrooms are designed for the collaboration across disciplines that is a Stanford hallmark. 

The center is named after Shari and Rick Sapp, ’78, whose generous gift, along with support from other Stanford friends and alumni, made the new center possible. Its remodeling takes advantage of the tall windows and copious natural light that made Old Chem architecturally ahead of its time in 1902.

Added within the old building’s frame are meeting rooms and common study areas with scenic views of the Oval in addition to labs, a library and the 300-seat Oberndorf Family Auditorium that was created by excavating the ground floor. 

A meeting room on the second floor commemorates a love story. 

Glenn White, MA ’36, and Kathleen “Kay” Thorburn, ’35, MA ’36, met as grad students in Old Chem’s Room 10. They got acquainted over tea brewed on a Bunsen burner. When White finally proposed, he recalled decades later, “it was spontaneous – spontaneous combustion.” 

The couple raised three children and lived happily together until Kay’s death in 1997. In 2014, White, then 100, made a gift toward renovation of the building where they met. The Kay and Glenn White Meeting Room occupies roughly the space where Room 10 once stood. 

Learn how Jane Stanford built Old Chem after her husband Leland Stanford’s death.

Meet more of the interesting people who walked Old Chem’s halls.