The Tower House Restored—After a Two-Year Renovation, Peter Coutts’ Library is Once Again a Place of Study

By Simon Firth, Writer and Bing Alumni Parent

Remember the old brick building that used to sit, boarded up and apparently abandoned to decay, between the beautiful Escondido Elementary and Bing Nursery School campuses? Well, on a perfect June day just after the close of the 2009 Spring term, a small crowd of Bing teachers, staff, friends and benefactors gathered outside the building’s newly restored front door, across which was tied a big red ribbon. The rest of the structure, too, looked as spruce as it must have in 1876, when it was built by Peter Coutts, a wealthy gentleman farmer of somewhat mysterious origins, to house his fine library of rare books.

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The occasion was to celebrate the restoration of the Tower House, as the building has long been known, and to inaugurate it as a professional workspace for Bing staff, the Stanford professors and students who study at the school and the many international visitors who come to Bing to learn about its much admired approach to early childhood education.

Before the ribbon was cut, Bing’s director Jennifer Winters welcomed everyone and thanked the many people who’d helped make a long-held dream a reality, especially Don Intersimone and Shannon Silva of Stanford’s Facilities and Capital Planning office in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and Bing alumni parent and designer Michelle Olmstead, who jointly oversaw all the details of the careful restoration. But in particular, she said, “I’d like to thank Helen and Peter Bing and the Arrillaga family, who have generously made this restoration possible.”

From left: Michelle Olmstead, interior architect, Helen Bing and director Jennifer Winters look at a quilt Mrs. Bing procured for the teacher workroom.

From left: Michelle Olmstead, interior architect, Helen Bing and director Jennifer Winters look at a quilt Mrs. Bing procured for the teacher workroom.

Winters’ thanks were echoed by Richard Saller, the dean of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, who holds the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson endowed deanship. Noting the Bing family’s many gifts to the university, the first of which was to create Bing Nursery School, Saller said, “It’s been a great privilege to get to know Helen and Peter, and I thank you for another contribution to the university.” The Arrillagas, he added, “are another family who have made Stanford what it is today: and I think that’s arguably simply the leading university in the world, with the leading child development school in the world.”

The new building has three stories, the first two dominated by a single large, open room. The main room on the ground floor is a conference space, complete with its original fireplace. This floor also holds a small library, service kitchen, restrooms and an informal meeting space in the converted porch. Upstairs the large room is a work space, outfitted with tables for project preparation and computer-equipped research stations. Next to it is a small supply room and lockers—available to Bing’s teachers for the first time. Each room is furnished with fine wooden tables, chairs and cabinets. Just as she has with the main Bing campus, Helen Bing picked out drawings, paintings, quilts and prints to hang on the building’s walls. Many are by renowned children’s illustrators, like Eric Carle, or exquisite examples of folk art, such as the colorful quilt made by the Gee’s Bend Collective in Alabama that hangs in the tower stairwell.

The building’s most dramatic feature is its staircase tower. The original spiraling wooden staircase joins the two main floors and then sweeps up again to a small, light-filled room on a third floor, creating the tower that gives the building its name. Legend has it that Peter Coutts used the tower (which was originally capped by a spire) to view the cattle on his ranch. Coutts bought the 1,100-acre property, which skirted the existing town of Mayfield and extended from what is now Barron Park in Palo Alto to Leland Stanford’s horse ranch to the north, for just over $90,000 in 1875. On it he established one of the great California dairy farms of its day, as well as a home that he called Escondite, now the administrative offices for Escondido village.

Coutts was widely liked and admired, but he remained something of a mystery to his neighbors. Indeed, Coutts was an assumed name. His real name was Jean Baptiste Paulin Caperon, and while in France he’d been a successful banker and was politically active. Political troubles forced him to liquidate his French assets and move to America in 1873. Problems with European railroad investments and an attempt by a San Francisco journalist to extort money from Coutts in return for keeping his identity secret led Coutts to return to Europe in 1881 to try to restore his affairs. But while living in Europe, Coutts became ill and in 1882 he sold his American ranch to his neighbor, Leland Stanford. Stanford used the ranch to expand his famed horse farm and turned the Tower House into a night school for his employees. In 1887 it was used as a drafting room, and with the opening of the university Escondite became the home of President David Starr Jordan and the Tower House his office. In later years the Tower House was used as a school for faculty children, an eating club, a hospital and a home. It survived the 1906 earthquake, but was closed after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989.

Now, Peter Coutts’ library is returning to its scholarly roots. It will house Bing faculty as they prepare for their classes, document their teaching, and prepare the presentations they give at child development conferences around the world. In addition, it offers space for staff development activities. Stanford faculty now have a purpose-built lecture space in which to present their ideas to Stanford undergraduates, as well as study space in which to work while conducting observational research at the school. “It’s our vision that the Tower House will enable Bing to bring the knowledge, wisdom and experience that’s here to a much greater segment of the early childhood education community, locally, nationally, and internationally,” Winters said at the opening. “Just as Peter Coutts believed in doing things the right way,” said Dean Saller in concluding remarks, “the Arrillagas and the Bings have clearly taken the same approach in restoring the Tower House and making it yet another powerful asset to serve the Stanford University community.” He then invited two young Bing students, Jack and Finn Arrillaga, John and Gioia Arrillaga’s grandchildren, to cut the ribbon and declare the Tower House officially open once again.