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.”
“Die Luft der Freiheit weht” is Stanford’s unofficial motto and translates as “the wind of freedom blows.” The phrase is a quote from Ulrich von Hutten, a 16th-century humanist. Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, embraced the questioning, critical spirit of von Hutten’s words and included them on his presidential seal. Gerhard Casper, president of Stanford from 1992 to 2000, adopted the motto as the basis of his inaugural address and encouraged its widespread use across the campus. The motto has been incorporated into the university seal, depicted in the sidebar on the right.