125 Stanford Stories

NO. 22
Looking Back

Olmsted’s master campus plan

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In his "Plan of Central Premises—1888" Olmsted shows three interlocking quadrangles and, for the first time, the Oval and Palm Drive. Stanford University Archives
Olmsted and diagram
Frederick Law Olmsted at work ca. 1890–95. Courtesy Stanford News Service
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The Boston firm Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge collaborated with Olmsted to develop the final architectural plan. Courtesy Stanford News Service
Eager for construction to begin, Leland and Jane Stanford lay the cornerstone in an 1887 ceremony. Stanford University Archives
Construction proceeds on the Inner Quad. Stanford University Archives
Palm Drive divides to form the Oval in the iconic approach to Stanford's main quadrangle. John Davis Photography
Arch-supporting columns line an arcade in the main quadrangle. John Davis Photography
The east-west sight line extends from the main quad's east gate (left) through the west gate to the Science and Engineering Quad. Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service
The broad expanses and succession of arches in the Science and Engineering Quad (SEQ) echo Olmsted's design for the main quadrangle. The SEQ advances the architect's original plan for a west campus quad. Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

In the fall of 1886 Frederick Law Olmsted, renowned landscape architect of New York City’s Central Park, arrived at the Stanfords’ Palo Alto Farm to begin planning the university’s physical campus. Although Leland Stanford had commissioned Olmsted to create the design, the relationship would be one of creative compromise.

From selecting the site to determining the orientation of the main quadrangle, Stanford was involved in every major decision. The result of their collaborative – and at times contentious – partnership was a campus master plan of extraordinary ambition and architectural brilliance.

The Olmsted-Stanford design is distinctive for its monumental scale and use of sight lines that extend through the campus. Olmsted’s “Plan of Central Premises” establishes Palm Drive as the central axis and iconic approach. The road divides to form the Oval and closes in front of the original arched entrance to the main quadrangle. Sight lines run parallel and perpendicular to the central axis providing long views through the landscape and its structures.

The layout and design of Stanford’s main quadrangle also stand out as architecturally innovative. As Professor Paul Turner once described in a Stanford Historical Society story, the design was distinguished by its expanse and openness – a significant departure from traditional European and East Coast quadrangles. Completed in 1905, the inner and outer quad buildings cover a remarkable 17 acres and feature colonnade-lined arcades supported by successions of arches.

In its 125-year history, Stanford has expanded well beyond Palm Drive, the Oval and the main quadrangle. Yet as the university has built and modernized, it has sought to honor the architectural foundation established in Olmsted’s 1888 master plan.

The Science and Engineering Quad (SEQ), for example, advances Olmsted’s plan for interlocking quadrangles to the east and west of the main quad. Sited to the west, the 8.2 acre SEQ carries forward Olmsted’s expansive and open design and restores an original east-west sight line. From the SEQ it’s now possible to view the distant Bing Wing of Green Library to the east of the main quad.

A similar axis was established in the Arts District, extending from the Cantor Arts Center’s neo-classical entrance across Museum Way to the front of Bing Concert Hall.

In a recent Stanford magazine column, President John Hennessy discussed the university’s efforts to honor its architectural past in its contemporary planning. You can view the article here.