Skip to content Skip to navigation

Home

October 20, 2013 | 2 – 5 p.m.
Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford, CA 94305

The day's program will include remarks by Stanford Provost John Etchemendy; exhibits of Stanford family ephemera and memorabilia; period music, and light refreshments. The Mausoleum will also be open to visitors on this special occasion.

The Founding of the University

On Oct. 1, 1891, Stanford University opened its doors after six years of planning and building. In the early morning hours, construction workers were still preparing the Inner Quadrangle for the ceremonies. The great arch at the western end had been backed with panels of red and white cloth to form an alcove where dignitaries would sit.

The 2,000 seats set up in the three-acre Quad soon proved insufficient for the growing crowd. By midmorning, people were streaming across fields on foot. At half past 10, the special train from San Francisco arrived on the temporary spur that had been used during construction. As a faculty member recalled, “Hope was in every heart, and the presiding spirit of freedom prompted us to dare greatly.”

Jane and Leland Stanford established the university in memory of their only child, Leland Jr., who died of typhoid fever at 15. Within weeks of his 1884 death, the Stanfords determined that, because they no longer could do anything for their own child, they would use their wealth to do something for “other people’s” children.

They settled on creating a great university, one that, from the outset, was untraditional: coeducational in a time when most private universities were all-male; nondenominational when most were associated with a religious organization; and avowedly practical, producing “cultured and useful citizens” when most were concerned only with the former.

Leland Stanford devoted to the university the fortune he had amassed, first by supplying provisions to the ’49ers mining for California gold and later as one of the “Big Four,” whose Central Pacific Railroad laid tracks eastward to meet the Union Pacific and complete the transcontinental railway. Included in the grant to the new university was the Stanfords’ more than 8,000-acre Palo Alto Stock Farm for the breeding and training of trotting horses and thoroughbred stock, 35 miles south of the family’s San Francisco residence. The campus still carries the nickname “the Farm.”

Under the direction of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect who created New York’s Central Park, and Charles Allerton Coolidge, a 28-year-old who designed the buildings, the farm’s open fields became the site of arcades and quadrangles. In a 1913 letter, Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, wrote: “The yellow sandstone arches and cloisters, the ‘red-tiled roofs against the azure sky,’ make a picture that can never be forgotten, itself an integral part of a Stanford education.”

On the university’s opening day, Jordan said to Stanford’s Pioneer Class: “It is for us as teachers and students in the university’s first year to lay the foundations of a school which may last as long as human civilization. ... It is hallowed by no traditions; it is hampered by none. Its finger posts all point forward."

This year’s Founders’ Celebration is being held at the Cantor Arts Center in recognition of its important place in Stanford’s history and future. Their Founding Grant made clear that the Stanfords wanted their university to feature museums and “galleries of art,” as well as “mechanical institutes” and “laboratories.” The cornerstone of the museum was laid in 1891, making it among the new university’s first buildings. It featured items collected by Leland Stanford Jr. during his many travels with his parents. Today, as in 1891, the arts remain a vital part of a Stanford undergraduate education.