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When buildings are destroyed or damaged by an earthquake—such as the one that rocked Stanford University in April of 1906—the host institution is faced with many critical decisions, including emergency response and evaluation of damage to buildings in order to determine their future. Following detailed assessments of the damage incurred by an individual building, there are three alternative courses of action: repair, redevelop, or demolish. Earthquakes can provide the unique opportunity to redefine the built environment. The Old Gymnasium and Library, two elaborate buildings that were commissioned by Jane Stanford during the same building campaign that also erected the Old Chemistry Building, were the sites of worst destruction after the 1906 earthquake. Since they had crumbled before they were even occupied, the University decided to demolish them. The Old Chemistry Building, however, is evidence of this ongoing decision-making process. Having been abandoned in 1986 and permanently closed after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, fifteen years later the structure remains fenced off with its windows boarded up as the University continues to consider various options for reconstruction.

Stanford’s Second Stone Age

Figure 1: The chemistry building ca. 1904

Figure 2: Approach to the gym along Museum Way, ca. 1906

Figure 3: View of the completed library across the Oval, ca. 1906

The Chemistry Building, Gymnasium, and Library (Figures 1-3) were constructed during a massive development campaign that stretched from 1899 to 1906. Once the family estate cleared probate five years after the death of Leland Stanford Sr., Jane Lathrop Stanford was eager to witness the fulfillment of her husband’s vision for their new university. Violating the original campus plan of 1888 on Mrs. Stanford’s orders, these buildings, and the adjacent Leland Stanford Junior Museum, were designed as individual neoclassical monuments sited prominently outside of the linear succession of quadrangles envisioned by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (Figure 4). Worried that project funds might be diverted to other uses after her death, Mrs. Stanford rushed the building process. The pressure to finish such elaborate structures quickly influenced some unwise time- and money-saving choices, including the decision to forego broad, flaring foundations similar to those specified by Senator Stanford for the Inner Quad buildings. Reflecting upon the time he called the University’s “second stone age,” Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, wrote in a personal letter, “these buildings, including the gymnasium and library, were put up by a tour de force, and the living organism of the University was almost starved in the process.”

Figure 4: The library and gym under construction, ca 1905. Under Jane Stanford's direction, the Library and Museum were designed as individual neoclassical monuments sited prominently outside the linear succession of quadrangles that had been planned by her husband and Frederick Law Olmsted in 1888.

The “Worst Scenes of Destruction”

A year after her death in 1905, Jane Stanford’s building campaign finally drew to a close, and the University was poised to implement academic improvements that had been delayed during the building construction. At the time of the 1906 earthquake, the new Library and Gymnasium were almost complete but had not yet been occupied, a fact which made their devastation especially frustrating. The 1908 Stanford Quad later called these buildings “by far the worst scenes of destruction” (Figures 5, 6).

Figure 5: The ruins of the library, ca. April 1906

Figure 6: The Gymnasium after the quake. Both the library and the gym were devasted by the 1906 earthquake and were demolished. some of the surviving materials were used for the reconstruction of other Stanford buildings.

John K. Bonnell, class of 1902, returned to Stanford from Oakland after the earthquake to examine the damage. In a May 1906 article entitled “Stanford Still Stands” published in the Stanford Alumnus, Bonnell described the Gymnasium building after the quake:

“The new Gymnasium, —the interior of which as yet unfinished,—[…] confronts us, a terrible ruin. The broad driveway, at right angles to the main avenue, led a few weeks ago to a stately Greek portico with massive columns and wide inviting steps. Above the portico, from the middle of the great building rose a dome, which corresponded to those on the Library and Museum. Now the columns lie broken on the ground, the marble steps are buried under heaps of stone, and the steel frame-work of the dome, crushed down and forward, lies out over the ruin of the portico like some huge bird cage that has been trodden under a giant’s heel. And the wreck of the dome and portico has brought along with it the front wall of the building from the roof to the first story.”

Bonnell compared the Library to the Gymnasium:

“The new Library, which it was hoped would be ready for occupation next year, is a more complete wreck even than the Gymnasium. But while the latter building presents the appearance of having been trodden upon in the middle, the Library is destroyed in the wings and retains its dome uninjured. The glass of the dome, and the stone work about the upper row of windows, unimpaired, stand high on the naked trestle of their steel frame. Only fragments of the walls remain to hold the sunken roof. Here and there the arch of a window, with its fine carving, remains amid the ruin. But the stairway leading to the entrances at either wing are demolished, and pillars are toppling.”

The devastation of the earthquake forced Stanford University to postpone expansion in other areas and return to its “stone age.” In a speech on the day of the earthquake, Dr. Jordan, confident but dismayed, remarked:

“For the past seven years Stanford has been completing the magnificent group of buildings as planned by the Founders. […] Stanford’s buildings have been paid for entirely from the income of the endowment. There is now nothing to do but to go over it again, with the same rigid economies that have marked the whole history of the University since the death of Mr. Stanford. […] [O]ur great ambitions for Stanford as a University may rest a while until we can save the money for building again and until our own alumni are old enough and rich enough to come to our rescue.”

Demolishing the Library and Gymnasium

Based upon Jordan’s statement, it appeared that the University would be reconstructed as it had been prior to the earthquake, but plans changed in the coming weeks. Although spectacular buildings, the Library and Gymnasium had strained the resources of the University. “The Memorial Church, splendidly built, but wrecked by the fall of its spire and flying buttresses, touches us deeply. […] But the new Library, Gymnasium, and Museum Annex, crushed like a pie set on edge, we have no feeling for. They have kept us impoverished for long, tedious years” (Dr. Jordan, April 24, 1906). The strain of the initial building project as well as false allegations of substandard construction contributed to the resentment toward these buildings. The Library and Gymnasium were examples of buildings whose damage the Commission of Engineers found to be “directly trac[e]able to and caused by ignoring structural principles in design, the constructive details and important parts of their integrity.” In spite of the ambivalence about the buildings, records indicate that there were early plans to keep the portions of the structures that were still standing. In fact, the ruins of the Gymnasium stood for months, testament to the devastation of the great quake and perhaps the trustees’ indecision. Their ultimate judgment, however, was to demolish both the Library and Gymnasium. Today, the Graduate School of Business and Frost Amphitheater, respectively, occupy their sites. Remnants of the Gymnasium’s foundation are still visible near Frost Amphitheater.

A Different Outcome for Old Chem

Figure 7: Workers sort bricks from the Library to the east of the destroyed building.

Figure 8: 1906 damage to the Chemistry Building.

The Chemistry Building, designed by San Francisco architect Clinton Day and occupied in 1903, was more fortunate than the Gymnasium and Library in 1906. All of the numerous chimneys through which fume hoods discharged collapsed, and some of the outer walls, including its front wall, were badly shaken, but the damage was small in comparison to the Gymnasium and Library (Figures 7, 8). The Chemistry Building was reconstructed in the summer months of 1906. According to the Commission of Engineers, the building was “[i]n very bad condition as to mason work, requiring the taking down of the greater portion of the outside and interior masonry walls and rebuilding them, likewise plastering, painting, roofing, heating portion of plumbing and carpenters work.”

After repairs, the building was immediately reoccupied by the Chemistry department in the autumn of 1906 and continued as such until 1986. In 1979 an inspector noted cracked and twisted structural beams, and a 1984 seismic evaluation also pointed to serious degradation of the masonry mortar. So, the Chemistry Department was relocated in 1986. In 1988, the University deactivated the building on account of maintenance and structural issues as well as notable fire code deficiencies. The building sustained additional damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake but, unlike others damaged in 1989, it was not eligible for disaster assistance funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because it had already been vacated (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Chemistry grad student's car crushed by falling concrete from Old Chem in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Image courtesy of Stanford News Service.

Figure 10: Today, Old Chem remains fenced off, with its windows boarded up as it awaits renovation.

“Old Chem,” as it is affectionately called, remains fenced off and boarded up to this day, an indication of the ongoing decision process (Figure 10). It is one of the few major structures on campus that continues to be closed as a result of damage from Loma Prieta and the requirements of the Santa Clara County Unreinforced Masonry (URM) Ordinance. The Old Chemistry Building’s architectural qualities, large capacity, and interior spaces make it attractive for several potential uses. The building is known for its excellent natural light, provided by high ceilings, large windows, and three skylights. While the building was remodeled in 1960, many of the original features and finishes remain in place.

In 1998, a Facilities Analysis Study was performed to determine the most appropriate reuse(s) for the Old Chemistry Building from an asset management perspective, while respecting its prestigious site and historical character. The four options included various arrangements of offices, classrooms, and laboratories, or a library. All of these schemes would require bringing the building up to current fire and life safety codes as well as meeting the more recent Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). Since funding has not been identified, the University has not yet scheduled the renovation project.

See an image gallery of the Chemistry Building



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