Alexander Girard and Garrett Eckbo

Richard Weigle and John Gaw Meem

Construction began apace, with President Weigle and the Board continuing their work towards financing the new campus while John Meem kept a close eye on the physical details. As related by Richard Weigle:

John Meem was not satisfied with the rather heavy treatment of the interiors of the buildings, notably the student center. He therefore proposed that the College retain the interior designer Alexander Girard to do the work. Girard had designed furniture for Herman Miller. One of his recent commissions that attracted attention was La Fonda del Sol in the Time-Life Building in New York….Simplicity of design was the keynote. The effects achieved in the student center were most pleasing. Square bricks were used to advantage in certain walls and simple vertical paneling in others. Chandeliers were imaginatively designed for the dining hall. Most of the furniture, executive and student desks, dining room and coffee shop tables, and common room furniture, were designed by Girard and constructed locally. Use of laminated wood block tops throughout resulted in significant economies and produced a harmony of appearance. Appropriately enough, there was a tie with Annapolis tradition, for Clore chairs were used everywhere, the same kind of chair that has endured thousands of hours of seminar dialectic over the years. Walls were painted white, except for bright colors here and there. On the first floor of the student center a door, a fire extinguisher, and a register were hidden by the way the wall was painted into sections, each part filled by some appropriate educational symbol, such as the Mendelian inheritance formula, Shakespeare’s signature, Einstein’s famous formula, an Egyptian eye, and the like. Paneled doors were painted in bright colors so that they added life to the interiors. All of this Girard accomplished well within the budget given him.

Alexander Girard in the Student Center Art Gallery, circa 1969
Painting the Girard Mural, 1964
College advertisement in Time magazine, 1967

Weigle continues:

A similar wise suggestion was made by John Meem with respect to the landscaping of the buildings. Garrett Eckbo of Los Angeles was doing some work for the University of New Mexico, and Meem prevailed upon him to visit St. John’s. The result was a commission…to develop the patio between the student center and the academic complex and to plan the landscaping for the rest of the campus. Eckbo took advantage of the difference in elevation between the student center and other buildings. He constructed two walls of lichen-covered stone for one-third of the area, a pool and rock garden for another third, and broad steps for the remaining third. Wide concrete walkways were installed in a brownish hue to combat New Mexico glare from the sun. Only in two places were grass plots installed. The balance of the campus was left in natural ground cover, thus simplifying the task of maintenance. Trees and bushes were attractively placed around the campus and in the dormitory areas, initially small but soon to grow to sizable proportions. Most of the stones and giant rocks came from the College’s own hillsides, many of them still covered with green lichen. They were beautifully used in stone walls or gently heaved unto position by a crane under the watchful eye of Mr. Eckbo.

Original campus landscape design by Garrett Eckbo
Close-up of Nina Garson Reflection Pool

Campus Construction Begins

In 2018, fifty-five years after John Meem ceremonially broke the ground he and Faith had donated for the new Santa Fe campus, College custodial staff cleaning out a storage space in the basement of Evans Science Lab turned up a stash of old boxes. No one knew for certain how long they had been there, but in addition to the layers of dust accrued on the boxes themselves, the items they contained suggested it had been for some time. One box held vinyl record albums from 1976. Another included a government civil defense pamphlet providing detailed instructions for what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Two boxes included original architectural correspondence going back to the earliest days of campus construction.

And among all of this material was a single film reel labeled simply “Cornerstone Ceremony.” With no certainty, given its age and its unknown history, that this reel was even still viewable, but sensing the possibility of something extraordinary, the Library used funds provided by a generous alumna for the preservation of deteriorating audio-visual media to have the fragile film professionally restored and digitized.

And it turned out that the Librarians’ intuitions were correct, for these twenty-two minutes and eighteen seconds of silent film are pure archival gold.

The film is comprised of a series of short clips, shot by hand and often shaky, recorded over the course of roughly a year and a half. It opens in the winter of 1963 at the intersection of Camino de Cruz Blanca and Camino del Monte Sol, a location every Santa Fe Johnnie knows by heart. Everything at that point is still familiar. And then, moments later, we suddenly find ourselves just up the road in a place we all know intimately, but—before, as it were, the place was ever there.

The film shows a scene of the newly bulldozed dirt campus entrance road, leading in to the fresh construction site. It shows the just-installed culverts that were necessary to allow for safe year-round passage of a road over Arroyo Chamisa, essential during the summer monsoon season when the ordinarily dry arroyo can fill within minutes after one of our frequent mountain thunderstorms. It shows the extent of the heavy machine work that went into preparing the hilly ground at the site for construction. It shows the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the new student center, which according to Weigle’s account occurred at 4:30 on Friday, September 27th, with “some 300 people gathered to watch officials of the Board, the College, and the city wield the trowel to mark the occasion.” It shows the extensive ongoing construction as the campus rises from the earth against the backdrops of Atalaya and Monte Luna and Monte Sol. It includes a shot of the burned-out contractor’s trailer following the explosion one late November evening of a kerosene stove, which started a fire that demolished both the trailer and all of the contractor’s project plans and shop drawings inside. It briefly shows the Santa Fe airport and then views of the growing campus from the window of a small plane. And it shows the College’s temporary office space in the Nason building at 202 East Palace Avenue in downtown Santa Fe, which served as the administrative headquarters until the move to the new campus at the end of August in 1964. And all of this appears before us in silence, as if we are both present in the moment and also impossibly far away. Which, in a sense, we are.

To revisit this legendary period of College history one has traditionally had to rely on Weigle’s own two memoirs, The Colonization of a College and Recollections of a St. John’s President: 1949-1980. Here in this film, however, we see the campus take shape before our very eyes, and in living color. We see, back across a gulf of nearly sixty years, the very individuals who planned and funded and built it—Dick Weigle and the Board members and the architects, the Caterpillar drivers and the carpenters, the plumbers and the bricklayers. And we see, for a few moments, John Gaw Meem himself, surveying the ongoing work.

For any who know our College, viewing this film makes for a powerful and poignant experience. For in seeing that year and a half of construction compressed into just twenty-two minutes and eighteen seconds, we begin to truly comprehend just how much labor went into the creation of this haven for serious reading and conversation we know as St. John’s. We see the Santa Fe campus’s embryonic beginnings there before us on the screen. We see the faces of the very men and women who brought it into being out of nothing. We see it coalesce from a vision into a full-fledged campus. And we see vividly—we cannot help but see —just how much this life of the mind to which we dedicate ourselves here owes to the labor of so many different hands.

The Construction of the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College, 1963-1964

Santa Fe Campus Groundbreaking

Richard and Mary Weigle boarding TWA plane to Santa Fe with the groundbreaking shovel used previously for the Key Memorial and Mellon Hall

Meanwhile, work on the new campus had begun in earnest at the start of the new year in 1963, beginning with the installation of the eight-foot culverts that would enable the campus’s access road to bridge Arroyo Chamisa, followed by the laying of the water and gas lines. On April 22nd an official groundbreaking ceremony was held, with John Meem using the same shovel that had been used in 1956 when ground had been broken in Annapolis for the Key Memorial and Mellon Hall.

In The Colonization of a College, Richard Weigle quotes from a letter Meem wrote later that week describing the event:

There were about 60 persons there; they parked on the causeway and slowly climbed the hill to the designated spot—it was like a pilgrimage and perhaps that set the tone for the event—that and the fact that the site looked particularly lovely, in spite of a chill wind blowing.

Meem himself made the following remarks at the ceremony:

This simple ceremony has a three-fold significance. In the long history of St. John’s College in Annapolis, it marks the moment when, because of a sound and successful program in liberal education under dynamic leadership, it has outgrown its physical limitations and must expand. This ground-breaking is a symbol of that growth.

It is also an historical event for the City of Santa Fe and the State of New Mexico. One of the oldest colleges in America and one of its most distinguished is about to construct a campus on our soil, thus increasing our educational facilities and immeasurably enriching our culture.

And, finally, it is an important event in the history of education in the United States of America for here—for the first time in our country—a college has adopted a policy of expanding, not by enlarging its local facilities, not by constructing regional branches, but by establishing extensions of its campus throughout the nation. Santa Fe has the honor, in response to our invitation, of being chosen for the first campus extension to be so established.

Ladies and Gentlemen: By virtue of authority invested in me by the Board of Visitors and Governors, I hereby break ground for the first group of buildings to be constructed on the campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe.

Financial Support and the First Library Plans

The future Library as envisioned in 1963

The business of building an entire campus from scratch meant not just the design and construction of the campus. It also involved the vital and equally complex work of the fundraising necessary to bankroll it. Santa Fe had been chosen by the Annapolis Faculty and by Weigle and the Board for a clear and explicit list of academic, cultural, and historical reasons. In The Colonization of a College, Weigle recounts the six criteria that led to the committee’s choice of Santa Fe. The first was the city’s parallels with Annapolis, both being small capital cities of about the same size, one in the Spanish colonial and the other in the British colonial tradition. The second was the rich cultural life of Santa Fe, with its many museums, its opera, its symphony orchestras, and its many arts galleries. A third was the proximity of Los Alamos National Laboratory, with its world-class scientific facilities and staff, who had extended a warm welcome to St. John’s. A fourth was that, at the time, neither New Mexico nor Arizona were home to any other independent liberal arts college. A fifth was the warmth extended by the entire Santa Fe community at the prospect of having the College’s new campus sited here.

But also paramount among these was the sixth—the prospect of good financial support for the campus in Santa Fe. As Weigle pointed out to the members of the Board of Visitors in 1961, he had drawn a circle with a radius of twenty miles around Santa Fe and could count at least that number of millionaires within it. For a new campus that was to be built 1,500 miles from its sister campus and from the ground up, that was an auspicious sign of the financial resources the College would have among its neighbors in this ancient but also cosmopolitan city. For Richard Weigle, an energetically driven man who was in his own way as visionary as Buchanan and Barr had been in theirs, was a ceaseless fundraiser, one who sought support for this small College from any and all possible sources: foundations, philanthropists, alumni, campus neighbors, his own college classmates, and just about anyone else he thought might take an interest in its program. And more often than not, his overtures were successful, because the simple fact was that, two and a half decades into the New Program, no other college in the county was doing what St. John’s had been doing with ever-increasing success since 1937.

Among these early donors to the Santa Fe project was Tom Evans, an old Yale classmate of Weigle’s who gave the money to construct the campus science lab (Evans Science Lab, or ESL) that now bears his name. Another committed donor in these early years, and someone who would continue her financial support for several more decades (she lived to be 102), was Baltimore-based philanthropist Clementine Peterson, whose recently-deceased husband Duane had been a Board member, and after which couple the Peterson Student Center was ultimately named. And, as always, there were the ever-supportive John and Faith Meem, who in addition to donating most of the original 260 acres of land (worth over $750,000 in 1960’s dollars) had also committed another $500,000 in direct financial support. Also in the ranks of these founding campus donors were newspaper publisher Robert McKinney of Nambe, oilman Robert O. Anderson of Roswell, Oscar B. Huffman of Nambe (at the time the owner of much of the Valle Grande in the Jemez Mountains), retired businessman Marshall McCune of Tesuque, and Annapolis alumnus Walter Paine of Vermont, all of whom were later honored in the Upper Dormitories that still bear their names.

In addition to all of the above, there was another couple of renown who were also early and significant donors to the College: actress Greer Garson, winner of the 1942 Academy Award for Best Actress for her starring role in the film Mrs. Miniver, which won the award for Best Picture that same year, and her husband Buddy Fogleson, a Texas businessman who also owned the 13,000 acre Forked Lightning Ranch on the Pecos River outside of Santa Fe, where he raised Santa Gertrudis cattle.

Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet in the 1940 film version of Pride and Prejudice (public domain)
Buddy Fogelson and Greer Garson (public domain)

As related by Richard Weigle:

E.E. Fogelson, better known as Buddy Fogelson, and his wife, Greer Garson, owned a ranch near Pecos, New Mexico, named Forked Lightning. I had hoped to meet them, and Fletcher Catron, their local attorney, promised to let me know the next time that they were in town. One afternoon I was surprised to receive a phone call from Buddy, who said that he was staying at La Fonda and that he would be glad to have me show him the plans for the new college. Buddy introduced me to Greer in Los Angeles over the long distance telephone. Soon thereafter, while I was staying at the Meem guest house, Buddy telephoned to ask me to spend the weekend with them in Beverley Hills. I accepted with alacrity and was put up in the Bel Air across Stone Canyon Road from the Fogelsons. At breakfast the next morning Buddy made a gift for the preparation of architectural plans for the new college’s library and music and fine arts building.

A July 22, 1963 letter to Richard Weigle from Buddy Fogelson illuminates just one of the many practical and financial challenges that went with building a new campus from scratch, and also illustrates the high standards of this group of founding benefactors:

Dear Dick:

I am dictating this letter from the ranch at six o’clock on Sunday morning to a machine. Although we discussed several things about the College yesterday, we did not go into one of the questions I had in mind regarding air conditioning. In your letter of July 11, you attached a memorandum dated July 5, which relates to the library plans and revisions. On page 2 of this memo it specifies “40% humidity controlled”. I am not sure what this means. What I am concerned about is whether you will have first class modern buildings with regard to air conditioning, so that summer classes can be conducted in comfort. I feel that the time is fast passing when first class construction should be done without fully air-conditioned premises.

When air conditioning is provided for during initial construction, the cost is relatively reasonable. When it is added after construction, the cost is high, and the operation is usually inefficient as compared to the construction-designed air conditioning. This is not intended to refer only to the library, but to the entire school….

Buddy

Nor was Buddy the only one of that well-known couple to make a lasting contribution to the new campus (though, as we shall see later, it would be nearly three full decades before his vision would come to fruition). Greer, who served on the very first campus Library committee, left her own calm and quiet mark in the very heart of the Santa Fe campus, for it was she who funded the installation of the small green oasis off the Peterson Student Center placita we now know informally as the “Fish Pond,” the actual name of which is the Nina Garson Reflection Pool, given to the Santa Fe campus by Greer in honor of her mother.

Greer Garson and Buddy Fogelson at a Reception for the Greer Garson Film Festival, St. John’s College, Santa Fe (1970)
Greer Garson Signing Autographs at a Reception for the Greer Garson Film Festival, St. John’s College, Santa Fe (1970)
Students by the Nina Garson Reflection Pool, aka the “Fish Pond” (1990s)

Designing a New Campus

Richard Weigle and original Santa Fe campus architectural rendering
Close-up of the architects’ vision of the new Santa Fe campus’s projected layout, from a vintage College postcard

As mentioned previously, John Meem was in 1961 recently retired from active architectural practice. His firm had been passed on to Edward Obert Holien and William R. Buckley, who had both already worked for some years under Meem, and it was Holien and Buckley who were hired to draw up the plans for the new campus, which would need to be built from the ground up. But of course John Meem—who was himself the primary land donor, an immediate neighbor, a strong community advocate for the College, and soon to become a member of the College’s Board of Visitor’s and Governors—also maintained a keen eye on and firm hand in the quality of the project.

The original campus plan included what is now the core of the Santa Fe campus: the Student Center, the Science Laboratory, and the main classroom building (Santa Fe Hall). It also called for men’s and women’s dormitories, an administration building, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a rooftop observatory, a chapel, and, as befits a College whose very raison d’etre is the reading of good books, a substantial library. All of these were to be built in keeping with the traditional regional architectural styles of which Meem was such a strong local advocate, styles rooted directly in both the Native American pueblos and in the early days of colonial settlement in the region, which had first seen Europeans in 1541 during Coronado’s fruitless search for the rumored Seven Golden Cities of Cibola and which had not entered into American statehood as what we now call “New Mexico” until 1912, just fifty years before the new Santa Fe campus was constructed.

Meem, in an article about the architecture of the new campus for a college brochure, described it as follows:

The “Territorial” style takes its name, obviously, from the period when New Mexico was a frontier Territory rather than a state. During that period innovations were made in the regional indigenous style. Among them the protection of the exposed wall parapets with a brick coping, the covering of the walls with stucco, the introduction of wood mill work and glass brought over the Santa Fe Trail and finally the use of paint….

The buildings at St. John’s College in Santa Fe will reflect practically all the historical phases….Their terraced flat roofed masses recall their ancient aboriginal American origin; the balconies, portales and patios recall the Spain they came from and the stuccoed walls with their brick cornices will remind us of our Territorial past.

However, these buildings will reflect still another phase in the development of the style for they will be completely contemporary in meeting the standards of living and scientific requirements demanded of a modern, advanced educational institution like St. John’s College. For example, the windows and doors will be of aluminum for efficiency in maintenance and their sizes and number will be far greater than in the original style; nevertheless, the walls will dominate rather than the openings, and the portales and balconies will be of concrete instead of wood for maximum fire protection. Such changes occur throughout the buildings especially in plan. The architects, however, have managed them in such a way as to make this campus, cupped in the pinon covered foothills of Santa Fe, completely contemporary and yet reflecting the rich inheritance of the past. Perhaps, in a small way, this may be a worthy symbol of the way St. John’s College looks at its task in the world.

The Selection

Barbara Leonard, Douglas Allanbrook, John Meem, Richard Weigle, Robert Bart, and William Darkey (1961)

With the unexpected appearance of Santa Fe as an 11th hour candidate for the new campus’s location, Weigle was thrown an unexpected curveball. The College had at this point narrowed its focus from its original field of 38 geographic candidates down to three possible locations on the West Coast, all in California. Now, with the sudden addition of scenic and culturally rich Santa Fe to the mix, a prospect made even more enticing by the Meems’ spectacularly generous offer of such a large parcel of land, Weigle found himself “in a genuine quandary.”

He continues his story:

How was one to arrive at a recommendation which would meet with the approval of the faculty and then would be adopted by the Board of Visitors and Governors? An inspiration came to me on the airplane, as a wise course of action suggested itself. Why not have faculty members visit the four sites and express their opinion? After all, it was the faculty who would have to be relied upon to teach on the new campus. It was they and their families who would have to live in the new community. Upon my return to Annapolis I discussed the matter with Curtis Wilson, then the dean of the College, and he heartily approved of my suggestion….

The Committee of four appointed by the president after consultation with the dean consisted of Douglas Allanbrook, Robert Bart, William A. Darkey, Jr., and Barbara Leonard. Allanbrook had graduated from Harvard and had won a two-year traveling fellowship to study under Nadia Boulanger in Paris. A two-year Fulbright followed, when we he was a pupil of Ruggiero Gerlin in harpsichord and early keyboard music. He joined the St. John’s faculty in 1952. Bart was also a Harvard alumnus, having received the bachelor’s degree there in 1940. He had been named Sheldon Traveling Fellow for one year and had come to St. John’s to teach in 1946. Eleven years later he had received a St. John’s M.A. degree.

Darkey had graduated from St. John’s College in 1942 in the second class under the present program. He had taught at the College for several years before serving in the Unites States Army and earning an M.A. degree from Columbia University. He had joined the St. John’s faculty in 1949. Barbara Leonard came to the College in 1951 after teaching zoology at Smith College for six years. She arrived with the first class to include women and served as a tutor and assistant dean. A graduate of Oberlin College, she held the M.A. and Ph. D. degrees from the University of Rochester. She had done work at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts, and in the department of pathology at the Yale Medical School.

The committee seemed a representative group. Collectively, the four individuals had spent over fifty years at St. John’s. The humanities, science, and music were all represented. Miss Leonard would look at the several sites from a woman’s standpoint, William Darkey from a student’s point of view. There was even a member of the group who opposed the idea of expansion. He felt that the entire country west of the Hudson River should be written off—except for Annapolis!

In the end, after a whirlwind five days in February of 1961, visiting first Santa Fe and then the three California candidate sites in Riverside, Claremont, and Monterey, the site committee made their selection—a unanimous recommendation of Santa Fe. Upon this recommendation, and following a presentation by William Darkey to the full faculty explaining their reasons, the Annapolis faculty voted unanimously to approve the committee’s recommendations and to recommend to the College’s Board of Visitor’s and Governors that Santa Fe be selected as the site for the College’s new campus. The Faculty’s recommendation was approved by the Board at its next regular quarterly meeting on February 22, 1961, presided over by its chairman, Richard Cleveland, a Baltimore attorney and son of former United States President Grover Cleveland, and by early March the planning for the new campus had begun.

Faith Bemis Meem

Faith Bemis Meem

While in Weigle’s anecdote Faith Meem appears only as a footnote, nothing could have been further from the truth, for Faith was a person of force and accomplishment in her own right. The Santa Fe Living Treasures project (http://sflivingtreasures.org/index.php/treasures/89-meem-faith-.html) “publicly honors elders who have generously served our community with kind hearts and good deeds,” individuals who “make a difference” and “express our best values.” One hundred and seventy-five individuals in the Santa Fe area have been honored since the program’s founding in 1984. Faith Meem was one of the very first, in 1985. In a piece entitled “Faith Meem: The Spirit of Civility,” the project’s website provides a sketch of her early life and her meeting with John:

Faith Meem’s interest in construction came naturally. Her father’s “first love” was construction–bricks and mortar. “He invented some of the first modular houses,” says Faith’s daughter, Nancy Meem Wirth.

Born in 1902 to Faith Gregg Bemis and Albert Farwell Bemis, Faith grew up in the Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill. One of seven children, Faith and her father enjoyed doing construction projects together. Faith attended Vassar for a couple of years, but when she became unhappy, her father encouraged her to study art in France.

On her return, Faith wanted to study architecture. Women weren’t admitted to MIT or Harvard in the 1920s. The two schools had created the Cambridge School of Design for women who wanted to study architecture and landscape design. Faith received her degree from this school in the late 1920s. Afterwards, she remodeled a house in Washington, D.C., and worked briefly in New York, “but it was during the Depression and jobs were scarce,” Nancy said.

The man Faith would marry, architect John Gaw Meem, contracted tuberculosis and came to Santa Fe for his health in the early 1920s. He was establishing himself in his profession. and one of his best clients was a woman from Colorado Springs named Alice Bemis Taylor. Alice hired John to build the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

She also asked him to hire her niece, Faith, as a draftsman in his office. John agreed, and Faith Bemis headed to Santa Fe. The only one of her siblings to go West, Faith felt New Mexico was like “being close to the sea because she could see the horizon,” Nancy told us. “She became attuned and identified closely with the Southwest.”

Faith and John were married in 1933. The couple lived in his office for a while and then bought property on Old Pecos Road, now Old Santa Fe Trail. “Together, they designed and built the split level part of the house in 1938,” said Nancy, who now lives in the home. “I was born in 1937. My parents had a housewarming and christening for my first birthday when the house was completed.”

What no one knew at the time, of course, was that the backyard of this very same property would, some two decades later, become the seedbed for the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s.