For "Old Chem," It's Back to the Future

Thursday, June 12, 2014
Glenn White and Ed White

Glenn White, MA '36, shown here with his son, Ed White, '60, MBA '62, has made a gift to help renovate Old Chem in honor of his wife, Kathleen Thorburn White, '35, MA '36. PHOTO: Steve Gladfelter

For "Old Chem," It's Back to the Future

Glenn White, MA '36, has given $100,000 to help restore the historic Old Chemistry Building as a Science Teaching and Learning Center.  

Spring 2014

Glenn White, MA '36, is 100 years old now, but he remembers the evening like it was yesterday.

"It's a beautiful moonlit night, and I can't study," called out a pretty young chemist from her lab in Old Chem. "Let's go for a drive."

Kathleen Thorburn, '35, MA '36, or Kay as she was known, was one of the very few women in Stanford's graduate chemistry class. When she caught White's eye in 1935, she had been studying the effects of preservatives on bread.

The two had gotten to know each other over afternoon teas brewed on a Bunsen burner and biscuits slathered with marmalade. Thorburn's invitation to enjoy the moonlight was just the opportunity White had been seeking. They hopped into her dad's Model A Ford and drove over to the golf course.

There, on the first tee, the young chemist popped the question. "It was spontaneous—spontaneous combustion," says White with a chuckle. "She said, `Yes!' She didn't even hesitate."

Seventy-some years later, White decided to help renovate the 112-year-old Old Chemistry Building. With its 16-foot ceilings and tall windows, it will serve a new generation of undergraduate science students. White's $100,000 gift will name a conference room on the second floor—the place where his wife's lab once stood.

Kay and Glenn White on their wedding day


After their marriage in 1937, at Stanford's Memorial Church, Glenn White became a quality control chemist for Shell Chemical Co., part of Shell Oil. Over the years, he, Kay, and their three children, including Ed White, '60, MBA '62, lived in Louisiana, Ohio, New York, and California. After Kay died in 1997, White eventually moved back to Palo Alto, where he has kept tabs on his alma mater.

For Old Chem, the years had not been kind. Originally designed by well-known San Francisco architect Clinton Day in Richardsonian Romanesque style, Old Chem was built under the personal supervision of Jane Stanford and was known as one of her "Noble Buildings."

Although the 1906 earthquake would topple all its chimneys, "Old Chem" served the chemistry department for 85 years before closing in 1987. PHOTO: Stanford Historical Photograph Collection

But after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, many feared the building would fall to the wrecking ball. The high cost to renovate a historical structure, plus debates about how best to utilize the 60,000-square-foot site, almost meant the end.

Ultimately, however, the building's history proved too compelling. After several years of study, the Board of Trustees announced in June 2013 that an anonymous lead donor had stepped forward to underwrite the $67 million cost of transforming the historical structure into the anchor of a new Biology/Chemistry District.

Renovations have already begun to turn the interior into state-of-the-art teaching laboratories and a new library for biology, chemistry, mathematics, and statistics. A large underground addition will feature a 300-person auditorium and flexible classrooms. The basement will become the first floor; its back entrance will be extended into an outdoor plaza suitable for graduations and celebrations.

The building will retain its historic facade even as it turns into a modern facility. The original wainscoting, doorknobs, and ornate iron grillwork—including the cast-iron staircase railings—will be refurbished and restored. The Science Teaching and Learning Center, as it will be called, is expected to open in fall 2016 and serve 700 students a day.

White couldn't be more pleased. Old Chem launched him on a highly successful career as a chemical plant manager that allowed him to raise a family and live and travel all over the country. But today it's that very special moonlit night that he remembers most of all.

"Yes, her lab was right about there," he says, pointing to the blueprints for Old Chem's new design where the conference room will stand. "That spot appeals to me. I met my wife there."


Editorial Note: Glenn White died peacefully on June 10, a month after celebrating his 100th birthday with family and friends and shortly before the publication of this story.