Corrie Engelson/Student Housing Archive
By Theresa Johnston
Rodger Whitney clearly remembers the winter Stern Hall approached its breaking point. It was early in the 1990s, El Niño storms were lashing California, and the flat roof of the boxy 45-year-old residence hall just wouldn’t stop leaking. Escondido Village apartments and Row houses were getting soggy, too. “Our maintenance people were in crisis-management mode,” recalls the executive director of student housing services. “It was like trying to keep cans on a shelf in the middle of an earthquake. All we kept thinking was, can we hold on for just one more year?”
Rain wasn’t the only problem. Branner Hall, built in the early 1920s, had knocking radiators, balky windows and sewer pipes so corroded that students were getting to know the plumbers on a first-name basis. In other aging dorms across campus, students were trying to cope with inadequate computer wiring and insufficient laundry facilities.
And then there were the aesthetics: dim exterior lighting, cave-like hallways, and painted metal furniture that hadn’t been replaced since the Truman administration. “My older sister lived in Stern, and I remember my mother burst into tears when she saw the dorm room,” says Orange County lawyer Karen Walter, ’93, JD ’96. When Walter moved into her own freshman room at Wilbur several years later, she faced a brown shag rug with a glaring seam down the middle. “Something must have stained or damaged half of the rug, and instead of replacing the entire thing, they just replaced half,” Walter recalls with amusement. “Neither brown of the rug matched the chipped brown paint on the closets and shelving. We were living in a ‘shabby chic’ environment before it was trendy.”
For their part, stoic graduate students dwelled in crumbling apartments at Escondido Village and alongside undergrads in “temporary” 25-year-old trailers at Manzanita Park—and they were the lucky ones. More than half of the grad students who wanted to live on the Farm in the early 1990s couldn’t get campus housing at all.
Whitney thought Stanford could do a lot better. So in 1992, he and then-director of housing and dining services Keith Guy went to the Board of Trustees with an ambitious multiyear plan to refurbish every aging residence on campus and build more grad student housing. Part of the motivation, they explained, was safety. Many residences needed seismic upgrades, fire sprinklers, better emergency exits and improved access for disabled students.
Another important consideration was fairness. While some students were languishing in Wilbur and Stern, others were basking in relative luxury at Stanford’s newer housing complexes, including Governor’s Corner, Kimball Hall and the popular Liliore Green Rains graduate student apartments. “We suddenly had a situation where there were haves and have-nots,” Whitney recalls. “The ’80s had been a time of growth in terms of new construction and residential program enhancements. By the early 1990s, the notion of deferred maintenance finally caught up with us.”
The board approved Whitney and Guy’s plan, and crews set to work in the summer of 1993. In the first year of the Capital Improvement Program, or CIP, they transformed Wilbur Hall from a tired postwar housing complex to a beautifully landscaped showcase with a new facade painted in shades of terra-cotta and forest green. Students were given “bulletproof” modular bedroom furniture they could rearrange at will. In the two years following, the team revived Florence Moore’s hip ’50s look and gave Stern its much-needed upgrade.
In 1996, construction crews began work near the driving range on the dramatic new $17 million Richard W. Lyman Graduate Residences. They were followed shortly by the Schwab Residential Center, a peaceful, palm-shaded villa for students in the Graduate School of Business. Construction crews also have been busy with upgrades and new studios at Escondido Village, and have completed work at Mirrielees and most of the Row houses. Lagunita, Toyon and Branner have received historically sensitive makeovers.
Among the Stanford residences that still need attention are Columbae and Durand, Crothers and Crothers Memorial, and Roble Hall, an elegant 1918 structure barely touched except for significant seismic work in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, Whitney can’t help feeling proud of what CIP has accomplished. The University now houses 58 percent of graduate students and all undergraduates who wish to live on campus. And over the past several years, surveys have shown a significant increase in students’ satisfaction with their abodes. On a five-point scale, “we’re now averaging in the 4.5- to five-point range, whereas before, we were in the threes,” Whitney says. “We’ve really turned a corner. Residences are lighter and brighter, and there’s more of a homey quality to them.” They’re quite a bit drier, too.
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