Photo: Stanford News Service

Old Chem Lives Again

Renovated after 30 years’ closure, it will anchor undergraduate science.

At its opening in early 1903, Stanford’s Chemistry Building cut a proudly aloof figure on campus. Perched off the Oval, the 60,000-square-foot Romanesque structure marked Stanford’s first major academic expansion away from the Main Quad.

In time, though, its regal remove gave way to moldering reclusiveness. Demoted from departmental headquarters in 1977, Old Chem was abandoned as a structural hazard a decade later. In 1989, it went into seclusion behind fences erected after its crumbling facade nearly crushed a car of grad students in the Loma Prieta earthquake.

But now, more than a quarter of a century later, Old Chem is rejuvenated and rejoining campus, this time with no hint of its former isolation.

After a $66.7 million renovation, the building will reopen in January 2017 as the Science Teaching & Learning Center, a multidisciplinary hub for undergraduate science students, and an anchor to the forthcoming Biology and Chemistry Quad.

A Safe Distance
The building’s relative isolation had pragmatic benefits: What better way to contain fire or explosions? One story, perhaps apocryphal, quoted in a departmental history, says that Jane Stanford embraced the distant siting after she’d arrived at Memorial Church one Sunday only to confront the aftereffects of an accidentally opened tank of hydrogen sulfide — an explosive and pungent compound — wafting from the original chemistry lab next door to the church.

A half-century later, the new building apparently still suffered from the compound’s olfactory unpleasantness, albeit with less risk to passersby. “[T]here was usually a little whiff of rotten-egg gas,” recalls Anadel Smith Law, ’47. “Every place has its aroma. It permeated everything.”

Jane Would Approve
Surely Mrs. Stanford would approve of Old Chem’s return — even if its price tag might provoke conniptions. The university matriarch put heavy importance on a new chemical laboratory, tapping her personal reserves to begin its construction and that of four other “noble” buildings before she gained full control of her husband’s estate.

To modern eyes, the building’s original construction costs beggar belief — $233,664 for the building and an outlying lab — but Mrs. Stanford was still scornful of the inflated bottom line. In a 1903 letter, she urged her brother to keep tabs on campus architect Clinton Day. “Mr. Day is in the minority always when he undertakes to put any useless things in the interior such as he did in the chemical building, fancy door knobs and fancy springs costing $3 each when he could have done them for one dollar ($1). I have never forgotten this.”

Photo: Stanford Daily

The Chemistry of Mixology
In 1979, Old Chem played its part in preparing students to make potions of a quite different kind, as the venue for a bartending course. Instructor Marty Weiner, PhD ’72, led aspiring barkeeps in everything from mixing drinks to massaging customer egos to dealing with the chaos of a busy bar. “A tom, a fizz, a sour and a sexy Russian,” he barked in one session, as students jumped to start mixing colored waters to satisfy his order.

Befitting a doctor of philosophy, Weiner claimed a deeper side to the job than easy money. Bartending promoted independence, confidence and social dexterity, he told the Daily. “The bar offers all types of people, a microcosm of life. Every customer who walks in gives you a chance to discover your limits.”

Photo: Stanford Daily

The Chemistry of Love
Women were rare in the department in her day, says Smith Law, who recalls Evelyn McBain, a senior research assistant and a chemistry PhD, who Smith Law says gave female chemistry students support that would have been lacking otherwise. “She was a shepherd for all women chemists.”

Kathleen Thorburn White, ’35, MA ’36, was another female chemist in earlier days. It was in Old Chem that she met her husband, Glenn White, MA ’36, bonding with him over tea and toast warmed on Bunsen burners.

One moonlit night, she announced she couldn’t study and suggested they go for a drive. They hopped into her dad’s Model A Ford and drove to the golf course. On the first tee, he proposed. “It was spontaneous — spontaneous combustion,” White recalled shortly before his death in 2014. “She said, ‘Yes!’ She didn’t even hesitate.”

More than 70 years later, Mr. White donated $100,000 to the building’s renovation; a conference room named in his late wife’s honor is located just about where her lab once stood. “That spot appeals to me,” he said then, looking at the blueprint. “I met my wife there.”

Photo: Stanford Daily

Shaky in Quakes
Originally, one of Old Chem’s most distinctive features was the 39 tall chimneys that vented its labs. “Almost a forest of them on the roof,” says Paul V. Turner, a Stanford professor emeritus of art history.

They were essentially clear-cut by the 1906 earthquake, an occurrence that foreshadowed the spectacular damage of the 1989 temblor.

By then, Old Chem was largely unused, but it had not been fenced off. Just as the quake hit, a car carrying chemistry grad students pulled up next to it. Speaking in 2014, the driver, Pratap Malik, PhD ’94, remembered instantly realizing what was happening and jumping out, along with two friends, just seconds before two body-sized blocks of sandstone landed on his Ford Granada with fatal force.

“You start doing things that you want to do rather than keep to a set course,” he said in 2014, musing on the incident’s legacy. “You do realize how close you are to death every moment that you live.” •