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