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WEEKEND ESCAPE: PALO ALTO

On Campus and Off

Taking in the sights and history of Stanford University and environs, where museums and good dining are plentiful

May 30, 1999|CHRISTOPHER HALL | Christopher Hall is a San Francisco-based freelance writer

PALO ALTO, Calif. — It was a sunny Saturday morning, the beginning of a two-day exploration of Stanford and neighboring Palo Alto. Although the university is one of the state's great academic institutions--and I say that as a loyal son of Westwood--like many Californians, neither I nor my companion, Mac, had ever had a good look at the campus. It was laid out at the turn of the century by the designer of New York's Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted.

The school's newly expanded art museum--home to the largest collection of Rodins outside Paris--was another incentive for the trip, as was the prospect of good eating in Palo Alto, which in recent years has become the premier Silicon Valley destination for dining, shopping and night life.

The free campus tour, offered twice daily except during exam weeks, holidays and semester breaks, was a good introduction to the 14,000-student university and the town of 56,000 that's grown up around it. The school was opened in 1891 by Leland and Jane Stanford as a memorial to their only child, Leland Jr., who had died of typhoid at age 15 while touring Europe. Leland pere was a rail tycoon and served at various times as California governor and U.S. senator.

The site chosen by the Stanfords for the university was their old horse ranch, and Olmsted's monumental vision for "The Farm"--as the school is still known--remains largely intact. Today, as you turn into Palm Drive, the stately, palm-lined avenue leading straight to the heart of campus, your eye is immediately drawn nearly a mile ahead to the sandstone Richardsonian Romanesque arcades and buildings of the Main Quad and the richly colored mosaic facade of Memorial Church. On the day we visited, the heavily wooded Santa Cruz Mountains that rise in the distance behind the Quad were crowned with a billowing wreath of ocean fog.

During our hourlong walk, nine of us were immersed in campus history and architecture by our guide, Heather, an urban studies major and intercollegiate water polo player who is partial to the word "cool." Heather pointed out significant buildings like Hoover Tower and spoke about campus life and traditions. She covered the spirited rivalry with UC Berkeley, of course, but also arcane rituals like Full Moon on the Quad, when new freshmen are kissed by seniors under the first full moon of the academic year.

Hungry for some lunch after the tour, Mac and I drove five minutes into downtown Palo Alto, a pleasant, shady district centered around the stretch of University Avenue closest to the campus. Filled with restaurants, galleries and shops, it feels more prosperous than your average college town--Heather had referred to Palo Alto as "yuppietown." For unabashed high-end retail, most Silicon Valley residents seem to prefer nearby Stanford Shopping Center, which boasts one of the highest sales-per-square-foot figures of any mall in the country.

We made our way to the Peninsula Fountain and Grill, which has been serving up shakes, sundaes and diner standbys since 1923. The menu notes there have been a few changes over the years--"We know you all miss the grumpy old waitresses who used to bicker all day long"--but with its tin ceiling, Formica tabletops and dark wood wainscoting, it still has an old-time feel. The place was packed, noisy and pleasantly high-energy, and if you can describe a tuna melt as "ethereal," then mine was--fluffy bread, made on the premises and perfectly grilled, with a filling of gooey cheddar and white albacore tuna salad.

That afternoon, we drove around town a bit to get our bearings, stopping to see El Palo Alto ("the tall tree"), an ancient redwood for which the town is named. We also stopped to look at the old tan garage at 767 Addison St.--"the birthplace of Silicon Valley" where, in 1938, fellow Stanford engineering students William Hewlett and David Packard began to develop their first product, an audio oscillator.

Equipped with a self-guided-walking-tour brochure put out by Palo Alto Stanford Heritage, we wandered on foot around "Professorville," a gracious residential neighborhood of turn-of-the-century homes, fragrant rose gardens and old, twining wisteria. Many early Stanford faculty members chose to build their Craftsman or Colonial Revival homes in the neighborhood because of easy access to downtown and the campus. In the same area, in a 1907 house surrounded by gardens, we visited the free and decidedly quirky Museum of American Heritage. Dedicated to technology of the past, the museum features everything from a working 1915 Edison cylinder phonograph to scary-looking old medical equipment.

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