Friday, July 22, 2011

Leland Stanford Mansion State Historic Park: Trip 3 of 70

The amount of money the State of California hopes to save by closing 70 State Parks is... $22 million dollars.

The Leland Stanford Mansion reopened in 2005 after a fourteen year renovation costing... $22 million dollars.

Well, you never know when or where you might find life's minor epiphanies and I certainly wouldn't have expected I'd have one while touring a billionaire's mansion.
My friends Jim, Geneva and I walked to the Stanford Mansion after a morning of touring The California Governor's Mansion, and lunch at Luna's Cafe. Still almost a block away, we could see the the elegance and affluence of this building was going to far outweigh that of the humble Victorian Governor's site. Both the grounds and the exterior dripped with wealth and "taste." The stairway and entrance to the home was particularly exquisite. We could feel the more formal atmosphere of this abode.

We purchased tickets for the 1:00pm tour, where unfortunately "formal" became "stuffy" at the front desk. I asked for information about the possible closure of the site. My query was met with brusqueness - borderline rudeness actually - and the reply that all I needed to know was in the Sacramento Bee Newspaper. But whatever the Bee had to say was not going to be forthcoming from this employee today. He went on to admonish anyone who would "speculate" about what was to happen, and that it was a waste of time to "speculate" and that he was not interested in "speculating."

I decided not mention my blog! I speculated that it would not be well received.

We were told that a ten minute film would be shown prior to the tour. We strolled the beautiful grounds, and a few minutes before 1:00, we returned to the office for the film. Apparently we had all misunderstood. The film had to be shown ten minutes prior to the top of the hour. We were too late. A crisp apology was offered. We were then informed that our tour would be starting a few minutes late.

Oh! Can we see the film then? We were perfectly willing to abandon the film when the tour was ready to begin. The response was "no." Instead they showed a 2 minute film on railroads... still no tour guide... we again asked if they could just start the film so that we could view as much as possible before the tour. Sorry, no. Our attention was directed elsewhere whenever we asked to see the film. In spite of our persistence we were told that we could see it after the tour. The tour started fifteen minutes late. By this time our backs were up just a little.

We received a friendly greeting from our tour guide, Phil. His attire included a navy blue blazer, white shirt and red tie, again a contrast to the polo shirt & walking shoes of the Governor's Mansion. Interior photos were forbidden. Sigh.

As we began the tour, my lifelong discomfort with material excess kicked in. The emphasis on Stanford's wealth and importance added to my building cynicism about this site. Right or wrong, I tend to look an extravagance and speculate how many charitable organizations could be helped for the same amount of money. On the other hand though, I do appreciate fine art and craftmanship so...

Leland Stanford made his millions (billions by today's standards) building the western portion of the trans-continental railroad. He was governor of California from 1862 - 1863 (back when a term of office was only two years.) He used his position to put forward legislation that would benefit his business interests, something which of course is no longer legal today.

Stanford's love of early photography has left the mansion with large black and white photos of both the family and their home. During the recent renovation, the photographs were used to help replicate rugs and other decor. Much of the original furnishings have survived. The design of some of the custom furniture was inspired by trains, such as the hutch in the formal dining room, shaped like the front of a locomotive.

Since California no longer has an official Governor's residence, the elegant and very large formal dining room is currently used for official state dinners when entertaining visiting and foreign dignitaries. Another room in the mansion is used for formal meetings of the same nature. My mind speculates about the closing of this mansion, and moving the state dinners to a banquet room at the Holiday Inn. The State Capitol was not yet built in 1862, so a small Governor's office was added to the 19,000 square foot mansion. This office is still used by the governor when at the mansion for formal events.

Before too much time had passed, the volunteer docent, Phil, was winning me over. His warmth, love of history, and of the mansion itself shone through. As we continued our tour, the Stanford family history became front and center, overshadowing the house itself. In 1884, Leland and Jane Stanford's only child - 15 year old Leland Stanford Jr., - died of typhoid fever while on a trip to Europe, in spite of the excellent care received by The Sisters of Mercy in Florence Italy. As anyone knows, the death of child is especially devastating. It's just the wrong order of things.

Since they could no longer educate their son, they built Leland Stanford Jr. University in Palo Alto, California, in his honor, a co-ed school free of tuition to those who attended. They supported children's charities generously, adopting "California's Children" as their own.

In 1900, Jane Stanford - now a widow of seven years - donated the entire mansion and it's furnishings to the Catholic Bishop of Sacramento to be used as an orphanage. The Sisters of Mercy and later the Sisters of Social Service adapted the building to their needs while keeping the essential features of the mansion in tact. It remained an orphanage until 1987 when the Stanford Home for Children moved to a new facility.

The chip on my shoulder had fallen off somewhere along the way - maybe in the large dining room. It was nice to be able to "get over myself" as Geneva said. Things aren't always what they seem.

Rooms from all eras of the mansion use have been preserved for our viewing pleasure, including the orphanage era. There's lots to see and for only $5.00 most definately worth a stroll through. But hurry, before they have to move all the official dinners to the Holiday Inn. (Just kidding!)

But seriously, if this closes, what about the $22 million used for the renovation? Does that just go down the tubes? Anyone care to speculate?

See you at the Parks.



  1. Amazing! What struck me was the $22 million... had the mansion not been updated would the 70 parks have remained opened? Something to ponder. Guess we'll never know for sure. It's ashamed it needed updating, and it must have been a heck of an update at that priced but seems to me the money could have been better utilized to keep open the 70 parks even if it meant this one would not get its updates. Nice story in the end though on how the couple used their money to the good of others. Made me feel good. It sort of reminded me of George Vanderbilt and the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC. George was an extremely wealthy man and built what today remains the largest privately owned home in the USA. Biltmore was built in the late 1800s and is very impressive. George was way more than a rich man though. Although he built a grand home what he also did with his money was to do so much good for many, many people. The things he did back then have affected an entire city and I have always admired him.

  2. Very nice. I'm really enjoying these write ups.

  3. A nonprofit org - the Leland Stanford Mansion foundation - was set up in 1991, a partnership of both public and private funds. Many of the donors are private/corporate. My guess is this money would not have kept the parks open, especially since renovation was completed in 2005. I wonder what will happen if it's closed... and what a waste. The link below tells alot about the foundation.

    My understanding is that the parks selected for closure had the produced the least revenue and had the lowest park attendance, and that it is that annual maintenance costs that come into play.

    Much is still unclear... to me anyway...

  4. Stanford University- tuition-free? Surely another time and era... sounds rather socialist... hmmm...


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