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