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The Ghosts of Stanford Past

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Christopher Gardner

Guardian Angel: The monument to Henry Clay Lathrop, Jane Stanford's brother, sits in a tangle of abandoned gardens and forgotten paths between Stanford University and the mall.

At the Stanford Tombs, once known as the Arboretum, Stanford family ghosts still haunt the abandoned gardens and fallen angels

By Ami Chen Mills

After dropping a friend off to work in the posh Stanford Shopping Center, I used to walk my Labrador mutt Iris through a large patch of yellowing grass studded with dusty oaks, located between the shopping center and the Stanford campus. This little-known, largely untouched oasis of wilderness off Arboretum Road near Quarry crawls with the ghosts of Stanford past.

The grounds are overrun with squeaking ground squirrels and the haphazard night camps of vagrants. Here, a broken and weeping stone angel--the "Angel of Grief"--mourns the loss of Henry Clay Lathrop, Jane Stanford's brother. The angel decays in the center of a long-neglected monument rimmed by rusting iron gates and an impressive skirt of small, broken, black-and-white tiles.

Barely visible dirt paths, bike paths and forgotten roads lead to an abandoned succulent and cacti garden hidden behind a looming ring of eucalyptus trees. Although the garden's former glory has mostly eroded into wilderness, it's still apparent in towering ancient desert specimens now grown into trees, and in recently cleared rusty, stone edging which barely marks the intricate borders of the garden in its prime.

Worn out from explorations and squirrel hunting in the summer heat, Iris and I would regularly seek refuge under the shadows of a magnificent, 200-year-old coastal oak which has since died, leaving only a plaque from the National Arborist Association to mark its ghostly presence. According to Herb Fong, Stanford grounds manager, the venerable old tree has since been turned into lumber and is currently available to artists--with the idea that they might fashion memorials from it--through the Stanford Development Office.

The tree deserves a proper memorial. Under the massive and magnificent branches of that oak, Iris and I escaped the dusty heat of the grounds to sit and watch ground squirrels run and contemplate the cool, reverential silence of the Stanford Mausoleum.

According to Stanford staff, the family mausoleum site was intended first as a site for a new Stanford family home. The "Cactus Garden" was planted in the late 1880s by the Stanford family and was to be the backyard garden of the home, along with a full arboretum. Indeed, rare and variegated species of eucalpytus and Araucaria trees are still found here: the monkey puzzle tree, for example, and the bunya-bunya, as well as one of the largest Monterey pines in the Bay Area.

But during a family vacation in Europe, Leland Stanford Jr. died abruptly, causing a change of plans. The site for the home was transformed into the current family mausoleum.

For a while the Cactus Garden--also called the "Arizona Garden"--functioned as a busy tropical and desert nursery for the university. Then, with the advent of World War II, it, too, was abandoned. But not entirely. Stanford students used to neck here--and may still--following an old carriage road to the garden on silent, starry nights.

Generally, however, the Arboretum has fallen into disrepair, neglected by university budget planners as they've pursued more lively endeavors. The Arboretum grounds, according to campus archaeologist Laura Jones, were always very important to Jane Stanford. And the founding mother is now buried here with her son, and husband Leland Stanford.

Jones has plans to restore some of the old Cactus Garden, making it slightly more accessible. Conservation studies are also under way for the Angel of Grief and Stanford Masoleum. But Jones is hip to the nostalgia of disrepair itself. "We all want the grounds to remain quiet. We're just going to make it a little safer to get to. You're still going to have the feeling of just discovering the place," Jones says. She has already done some work on the Cactus Garden and will continue to reconstruct it somewhat, coaxing back some of its former shape. Then, she says, she will allow it to settle into a state of overgrowth. "There's something romantic about a ruin," she notes.

And so, the Stanford Tombs or Arboretum or Arizona Garden, as the grounds were once called, will remain both ghostly and overgrown and lovely. A hidden place where Iris and I lived out a girl's fantasy, wandering our secret, scraggly, abandoned garden--just yards from the bustling world of fashion and finance across the road.

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From the October 17-23, 1996 issue of Metro

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