On October 26th, 1990, campus President John Agresto cancelled all classes for the day, and the College community rallied “in what President Agresto called a ‘booket brigade’ to move the books into the new building. Acting Librarian Tracey Kimball oversaw 250 volunteers with book bags, carts, and trucks as they moved more than 50,000 volumes in about six hours. The library’s shelving capacity is 90,000 volumes.” (The St. John’s Reporter, December 1990)
With the College community’s shared vision now in place, the firm of McHugh, Lloyd & Tryk Architects set to work on the design of what would ultimately take shape as our present 24,414 square foot library. Among the architects who contributed to this project was David Perrigo, who twenty years later would design the Santa Fe campus’s Winiarski Student Center.
For the library’s construction the College contracted with builder Stan Davis, a prominent Santa Fean who two years later would, like Faith Meem, be honored as a Santa Fe Living Treasure. Stan’s long building career had involved diverse projects throughout the region, including post-war housing in Los Alamos, the Benedictine Monastery in Pecos, Christ in the Desert Monastery in Abiquiu, and much of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Locally, Stan’s resume included a collaboration with John Gaw Meem on the 1974 restoration of the Santa Fe Plaza, as well as a repair of the portal of the Plaza’s singularly significant Palace of the Governors, the oldest public building in the nation (built in 1610), after it was damaged by a car crash.
And nowhere is Stan Davis’s character more evident than in our own library. All those who enter this quiet space soon find their attention drawn upwards towards the distinctively New Mexican hand-decorated beams gracing its ceilings. These roof beams–carved by Ricardo Russo, a local priest who also carved beam replacements for the Cristo Rey Catholic Church, another John Gaw Meem building just off Canyon Road–were Stan’s personal gift to the College.
The beams are just one of the many intentional architectural touches that combine to make this library such a beautiful and appealing reading space. No one has put this careful intentionality into words more eloquently than Lisa Carey, in an article she wrote for The St. John’s Reporter in conjunction with the library’s opening:
Anyone who has participated in a St. John’s seminar understands that it is a vital center in the life of the College. It is a lively, public exchange, united around a common purpose and a common table. The success of a seminar depends on a student’s ability to take part in a sustained and meaningful conversation about a book. However, to do this a student must have an initial exchange with a book that is private, focused, and reflective. This part of our activity that is internal and contemplative is as central to the life of the College as is seminar, and it is this way of being with the books that the library is concerned with above all.
Just as the seminar is focused around a common table, it is fitting that a building devoted to contemplative activity should exhibit a strong internal focus or center. Our intention was that the building itself should be sited so as to create a second center on campus. The placita to the front campus is surrounded by the Peterson Student Center, the administrative building, Weigle Hall, and two classroom buildings. This is the public center, where most people enter the College proper. The library and the plaza to the front of it create a second, more private center to the back of campus and is bordered by the south side of Peterson, the Fine Arts Building, and the open space at the foot of Monte Sol. Once a student arrives here and enters the library, the building should lead him away from the public activities of life at the College and inward. Our wish was to build a strong building with a strong momentum inward toward a focal point that was serenely beautiful and which played a symbolic and functional role.
We also wanted to make use of one of New Mexico’s finest assets—its light—as a principal aesthetic feature of the building, as a symbol of education and functionally, to help illuminate the building. The architects’ solution was to design a building that one approaches through a broad, deep-set plaza. As one enters, one passes through a succession of transitional spaces—a vestibule, lobby and catalog area which have the effect of drawing one away from the rest of campus into a qualitatively different kind of space—a large, central atrium that is streaming with soft, indirect, natural light. This is achieved through the use of a Kal-Wal skylight, which is constructed of two sheets of translucent fiberglass and an internal aluminum frame separated by spun glass. The effect of the skylight is rather like a shoji screen.
Around the atrium, books, reading rooms, and professional services are organized. In this connection it should be mentioned that after having developed a design with a large, central atrium it seemed obvious to use this space for bookstacks. Doing so would have fulfilled a preference of the librarians to house the complete collection on the first floor. Yet this sensible idea was at odds with our notion of developing a contemplative center as well as with the College’s most important understanding of itself. To place bookstacks in a strong central space would have been tantamount to building a tabernacle to the books; it would have effectively claimed that the College venerates the books in themselves. The books that comprise our program of study do not propound a specific, singular doctrine. Rather they challenge and disagree with one another in untidy and wrenching ways. What they hold in common is that they ask the most important questions that thoughtful human beings have asked and provide the most substantial answers to these questions. Together they proclaim a tradition—a tradition that is shared and continued by the College—that it is reason that moves us from opinion to knowledge. While our esteem for these books is unquestioned, to create a sort of tabernacle to them would be on the order of sacrilege to those who know and understand the College. We simply do not venerate shelved books no matter how antiquated or fine their editions, no matter who their author. It is the engagement of the reader and the book that is at the center of the College’s understanding of itself. It is fitting therefore that the function of the central atrium is to provide space for readers and to bring light into the building. A second important aesthetic goal was that the building should attempt to convey an institutional identity that is not otherwise apparent in the campus architecture—that of a College devoted to the classical tradition of liberal education. We wanted it to be clear as one enters and uses the facility that this library is unique because of its specialized collection, its understanding of the place of contemplation in the life of the College, its acknowledgement of the importance of the reader and its relation to an educational tradition that is classical in origin. While we wanted the building to be compatible with the other buildings on campus and with the regional style of architecture, we also wanted the building to refer to the roots of our program of study. Because territorial architecture is a neoclassical style, it was natural to strengthen the purely classical references in the building. One attempt to do this which constitutes a departure from the rest of campus was to render the columns at the front of the building round rather than square. The architects believe that this speaks directly to classical Greek architecture; others appreciate that it is reminiscent of the columns at the entrance of the library on our sister campus.