The Mabee and Kresge Foundations

At this point, ten years into the new campus’s existence, the College’s expanding library holdings had been in nearly constant motion, migrating almost yearly through basements and lab rooms and women’s dormitories and then back into basements, such that the collection had become widely dispersed around the campus. While the librarians and students and faculty made do as best they could, this made for a less-than-ideal situation. According to one undated evaluation by the Head Librarian:

Lack of anything like adequate study space is a serious, continuing problem. There seems no solution to the problem short of a new building which would provide such space…. The noise level is too high in all areas of the library, and there likewise does not seem to be any solution to that problem short of a well-designed building in which administrative work spaces are separate from shelf stacks and study areas. Telephones will ring, typewriters must be used, and verbal queries from patrons must be answered.

In the meantime, the College and its librarians carried on. In 1980 James Benefiel, who had already worked for the College for several years as a cataloguing librarian, took on the position of Library Director, a position he would hold until 1990. It was during the next decade that the momentum for a new library truly began to build. Richard Weigle had retired from the presidency in 1980, after thirty-one intensely productive years at the College, and under his successor, Edwin Delattre, the prospect of a dedicated library building again appeared on the horizon. The archives shows a conversation in 1984 between Mr. Delattre and Mr. Benefiel explicitly devoted to discussing various visions of a new library. In 1985 a rough cost estimate, based on the original library plans, was worked up, and with further input by the campus library committee and the head librarian, the vision of more than twenty years began to coalesce into the outline of an actual project. A summary of the state of the library at the time is telling:

The collection is now housed in three separate locations on campus: in the Peterson Student Center, the Fine Arts Building, and Weigle Hall. Storage for back issues of periodical titles and for new and gift books is in two rooms in the basement of Peterson Center. Altogether these spaces occupy 8,318 square feet…. With the exception of 6 carrels, 2 tables, and 2 lounge chairs, there are no accommodations for readers in the three library locations. The lack of adequate study space is a serious, continuing problem and it is the expressed desire of the college community that a new facility generously provide for this need…. Finally, the fact that the four staff members are spread out over three locations has caused some inefficiencies and managerial difficulties. Circulation activities occur in three locations rather than one, cataloguing and card production are handled in two locations…. Overall, supervision of a library and a library staff that is spread out over three locations is more time-consuming than it would be for one location.

By 1986, when Michael Riccards assumed the Presidency of the Santa Fe campus, the conversation had grown to include the Faculty, the Campus Planning Committee, the Board of Visitors and Governors, and a Strategic Planning Committee. At this point, a grant application was already in the works with the J.E. and L.E. Mabee Foundation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, created in 1948 by oilman John Mabee and his wife Lottie with the goal of providing philanthropic support to educational, medical, and charitable organizations. According to a Foundation spokesman at the time, “the philosophy of the foundation is that since the Mabees acquired much of their wealth through oil operations in the Southwest, money should be put back into institutions in the Southwest.”

By this time, nearly twenty years after graduating its first class, the fledgling campus had arrived at full adulthood, and it was now able to apply for these grant funds from a position of strength. To quote from a letter to the Foundation drafted for the original grant application:

As you can appreciate, the academic program of St. John’s College relies heavily on the printed word. It has been a continuing frustration to have the College’s 50,000 volumes housed in three separate buildings on our campus.… When the Santa Fe campus was conceived in the early 60s and plans were completed for the buildings, a three-story library was envisioned…. The plans that were prepared in 1963 called for a library with 18,200 square feet—ample capacity for the present and long-term needs. The architectural style of those original plans was in keeping with the other campus buildings—called the Southwest Territorial style. The Library was not built in the early days of the College because of a lack of funds and a need to use all contribution income for current operations…. St. John’s now has the financial stability to allow us to concentrate on finding the resources to build a quality library which can serve the needs of its students now and in the future.

In April of 1988, the College announced that the Mabee Foundation would provide $1 million to St. John’s for a new library, contingent upon the college raising the remaining $1.8 million itself. With this grant offer, which gave the College one year to meet its challenge requirement, the race was now on. The College’s Advancement staff immediately set to work on fundraising, and as has always been the case for this College when there is a capital need, alumni and Board members and faculty and friends of the College all rallied on behalf of the new library. In the course of this broad effort, the College also netted a second significant challenge grant of $250,000 from the Kresge Foundation, yet another powerful vote of confidence in the project and a significant boost to the fundraising effort.

Meanwhile, the Campus Planning Committee carefully reviewed the original 1964 library plans and ultimately concluded that these were now insufficient for the needs of the College. This led to the creation of a steering committee comprised of staff, faculty, Board members, and students whose charge was to develop a detailed program document for the new library. Instrumental in guiding this work was library consultant Lisa Carey, SFGI86, who would work tirelessly on this new campus library project until its completion. In an article Lisa wrote for the St. John’s Reporter in December of 1990, she described these first stages of planning:

While the document addresses various goals for the building—such as the need to provide shelf space for 90,000 books, the need to manage all aspects of operating a high quality library geared to the College’s program of study, as well as the need to stay within a modest budget—it was understood that our principal goal was to provide study space to students. So significant was this goal that the committee made a commitment to provide seating for 50% of the undergraduate and graduate population, or 220 students. This is remarkable as a more typical seating goal for a library facility would be to provide seating for 10 to 15% of the student population.

In addition to the library steering committee, a student library committee was given the task of finding out what kind of seating was desirable to students—carrels, study tables, upholstered furniture or some combination. The committee consisted of six students—Owen Lee, ’90, Kelly Koepke, ’90, Lee Whiting, ’89, Ron Kaplan, ’90, Sarah Maxwell, ’91, and Luke Warren, ’92—all of whom worked tirelessly in their effort to make students’ wishes influential on the design of the building. They prepared a questionnaire which was distributed to the entire student body, and then interviewed students personally. In addition to breaking down student preferences for seating, the committee was also able to learn of students’ most important wish—a quiet, safe, warm 24-hour study space….and it was decided that the building would provide two 24-hour study rooms.

By this time, more than twenty-five years had passed since Richard Weigle’s fateful first meeting with John and Faith Meem, back in February of 1961. John Meem had gone on to serve four terms on the College’s Board of Visitors and Governors, remaining a stalwart supporter of the College and the Santa Fe campus up until the time of his passing on August 4, 1983. Following John’s death, Faith herself was elected to the St. John’s Board in January 1984, and after her first term expired in 1986, she was elected for another three years.

A year later her son-in-law, John Wirth, a professor of Latin American studies at Stanford who had married the Meems’ daughter Nancy, was himself elected to the Board, and both he and Faith became actively involved in the new library project. When Faith passed away on March 23rd, 1989, at the age of 87, she had just attended a Board meeting on the Santa Fe campus the previous Saturday, and she had also been the person to make the final gift completing the funding of the new library, which she would just miss seeing finally come to fruition on the land she and John had donated for the campus nearly thirty years before.

The Tower Building Library and the Fine Arts Building Library

Groundbreaking on October 14, 1970, for what was originally known as the Tower Building and was later (1974) renamed Weigle Hall. Wielding the shovel are President Richard Weigle and Tutor David Jones.
The Tower Building prior to the installation of the bell and the finial.

In 1971 the College moved ahead with the construction of a dedicated administration building. Richard Weigle writes:

The need for this was based on the usurpation of classroom space by administrative offices and on the occupation of a floor in the women’s dormitory complex for library purposes. It was thought prudent to consolidate all administrative offices in one building…. On the first floor of the Tower Building, later to become Weigle Hall, were the offices of the dean, the assistant deans, the treasurer, the director of admissions, and the director of financial aid. Upstairs were the offices of the president, the vice president, the director of development, and the director of the Graduate Institute. At the end of the hall was the faculty room, where a large table invited meetings of the faculty and, on occasion, of the Board. In the basement were the heating plant, the duplicating room, and space for 20,000 volumes in an annex to the library.

A note by an unidentified library staff member to Brother Brendan at the Library Center of the College of Santa Fe, dated November 15, 1971, makes reference to the library’s migration to this new space in the weeks before the building’s official opening, as follows:

Dear Brother,

Alice Whelan is on a short vacation, but I know she would want me to express to you on behalf of all the library staff our sincere thanks for all the masses, novenas, pilgrimages, nocturnal vigils, votives, stations, rosaries, offices, and misericordes you obviously offered up for us on the occasion of our recent library move here at St. John’s. I refuse to dwell on what could have been without those book trucks and ramps; however, we are successfully moved now, and I want to take this opportunity to send our feelings of gratitude to you for the loan of those most practical things. Muchas gracias.

Afectisimo.

Moving library books (1971)
Moving vinyl (1971)
Moving vinyl (1971)

The new Tower Building, with its additional library shelving space, officially opened on December 4th, 1971. Seven months later, the Santa Fe campus received an unexpected boon when Annapolis alumnus Jac Holzman joined the College’s Board of Visitors and Governors. Holzman had founded Elektra records in his student days at St. John’s, later going on to sign some of the greatest musical acts of the time—groups like the Doors and Queen and singers like Carly Simon and Judy Collins, to name just a few. As Weigle tells it:

Jac Holzman came to me in the summer and inquired about the possibility of making a major gift to the College for a building. I recalled that there were plans for the music and fine arts wing of the future library. These I showed to Holzman, and they suited his purposes perfectly. The result was his gift of $300,000 toward the cost of the building…. A dedication was held in October 1973 after the College had already commenced using the building. Books, records, tapes, and scores were moved during the summer into the new music library, which was well equipped with the best listening stations. Elsewhere on the first floor were two music seminar rooms and two practice rooms or offices. The second floor, connected to the upper story of the student center by a bridge, contained a comfortable listening lounge for larger groups of students, an office, and a commodious fine arts studio. As the ground fell away to the south, the lower floor could be used for six practice rooms and a ceramics studio, to say nothing of the space devoted to mechanical equipment. The building made a splendid addition to the physical plant of the College. It was named the Sternberger-Weis Music and Fine Arts Center as a memorial to Jac Holzman’s grandparents, Estelle M. Sternberger and Rabbi J. Max Weis.

Alumnus and Elektra Records Founder Jac Holzman at the 1973 dedication of the Sternberger-Weis Music and Fine Arts Center, flanked by Richard Weigle and Mrs. Minette Holzman on the left and architect William Buckley on the right.

This building, referred to commonly in the years since as the “Fine Arts Building,” or “FAB,” was to hold the campus’s growing music collection for the next seventeen years. With a long history of various orchestral, chamber, and vocal ensembles, as well as a world-class opera in existence since 1957, Santa Fe’s devotion to the musical arts vies with its love of the literary arts, and the campus’s collections were soon augmented by regular and substantial donations of vinyl and musical scores from the growing number of Santa Feans who had become friends and supporters of the College, to the point that a separate arm of the Friends of the Library came into existence: the Friends of the Music Collection. Nor was the new Music and Fine Arts Center Jac Holzman’s only gift to the College and its library. Not long after, it was further enhanced by a substantial donation of rare folk and rock music materials from Holzman’s personal collection, which resides in the Meem Library to this day.    

Checking out vinyl in the Sternberger-Weis Fine Arts Center Music Library
Vinyl and reel-to-reel listening stations in the Sternberger-Weis Fine Arts Center (FAB)

George Miller and Alice Whelan

In 1966 George Miller, an Annapolis graduate (AN’52) with eleven years of experience at the New York Public Library, became the next Santa Fe Head Librarian, staying on in this position through 1969 while also serving as a part-time tutor. Over the first four years of the new campus’s existence, its library holdings doubled in size, as the following archival data shows:

1965: 9,236 items

1966: 11,629 items

1967: 14,324 items

1968: 18,074 items

These numbers may seem small in light of the Meem Library’s current holdings of some 70,000 items, but for a library collection that literally began from nothing, they represent both the prodigious effort of these early librarians to quickly build a collection commensurate with the quality and breadth of our College’s curriculum, and also the generosity of many Santa Feans who donated works from their own personal libraries to help flesh out the College’s fledgling collection. 

Alice Whelan, who arrived as a cataloguer in 1967, had previously worked at the Atlanta Public Library and later as Humanities Reference Room Librarian at the University of Maryland. After three years of cataloguing at St. John’s, and following an illness that compelled George Miller to resign, Mrs. Whelan became the Santa Fe campus’s third Head Librarian, supervising an Assistant Librarian, a Secretary, and a Reader’s Services Librarian. This was a position she would hold for more than a decade, until 1980, after which she would stay on for another two years as a part-time bibliographer and consultant.

Ms. Whelan’s correspondence, much of which remains in the archives, makes for interesting reading. As just one example–upon receipt of an unsolicited annual report of public school educational statistics from the office of Harry Wugalter, the New Mexico Secretary of Education, Ms. Whelan wrote back:

Dear Mr. Wugalter,

Thank you for the accompanying publications. They make an impressive corpus, and I am sure an invaluable source in the right place.  However, inasmuch as St. John’s College has no courses in education, nor even education-related courses, they would find no use here whatsoever. I think them too valuable to lie unused and so am returning them.

You might note, on whatever list of institutions you keep, that St. John’s is an inappropriate recipient for such materials. We receive such publications from time to time, and I deplore the waste.

Respectfully yours, Alice H. Whelan

In 1968 a Friends of the Library group started up under the chairmanship of Richard Stern, a Santa Fe resident and novelist whose works include an Edgar Award winner and a thriller that later served as inspiration for the 1974 blockbuster film The Towering Inferno. Stern was an avid supporter of both the literary arts and the St. John’s Library, and for the next decade he would be responsible for arranging a steady stream of readings by contemporary writers running the gamut from children’s author Judy Blume and novelist John Knowles to science fiction writer Roger Zelazny and budding mystery writer Tony Hillerman, whose Navajo Tribal Police novels would go on to become national bestsellers over the next four decades. Stern’s Friends of the Library group served both to raise the local profile of the College and to raise money for additional Library book acquisitions. In a letter to a professional colleague at Marlboro College in Vermont, Alice Whelan wrote:

As to starting a Friends of the Library organization, the best advice I can offer is that you find a Dick Stern. Do you know him? It is really under his personal aegis that the whole thing has evolved. There was a Library Associated Committee even before the school was actually built, but it became really active only after he became chairman four years ago…. I think part of its success is due to the variety of ways of giving offered for potential donors. The lists of suggested specific titles have brought us some wonderful items we could not have had except as gifts. I try to make each year’s list represent as many subject areas as possible, over a wide range of prices. The Book-and-Author luncheons have been very popular. We have them in the largest dining room in Santa Fe, the New Mexico Room at the La Fonda, which seats three hundred. It is always very nearly filled….Another serendipitous benefit has been establishing relationships with many in the town who had never had a direct contact with the school before.

The Opening of the Campus and its First Library Space

The new campus formally opened in October of 1964. Richard Weigle describes the inaugural Friday night lecture by Dean Clarence (“Corky”) Kramer in the Great Hall as follows:

In his lecture the dean said that technique threatens to outstrip knowledge and that the scientist and layman have become estranged. But science and the liberal arts have a “common dedication for freedom.” Mutual distrust has arisen because science has become something of a “veiled” activity and has taken over, partly by default, the kind of authority once held by churches, courts, and universities. Kramer said that the liberal arts institution has both the ability and the duty to inquire where science encroaches on the political and social order. It must find a new common language to deal with the distrust.

Kramer discussed the role of the St. John’s Program in a nuclear age. He compared contemporary disorders to similar events in the history of the world and noted that works of literature and philosophy, influenced by historical events and movements, have applicability to the present day. He said that serious conversation must be restored to resolve modern problems and to re-establish communication among differing groups. The alternative would be a return to barbarism, a tendency to seek immediate remedies to conflicts by violence. Through serious dialogue, he said, human beings can accept their limitations and learn to reconcile their differences. He called serious dialogue our “way of saluting each other as humans,” and said that the role of the liberal arts is to fight against barbarism wherever civilization is in jeopardy. A lively question period followed the lecture, as is the St. John’s custom.

And so the Santa Fe campus was off and running. As for the library—with no dedicated building of its own yet, it was temporarily sited in the first-floor space of the student center, in what was intended to be (and is now) the location of the campus Bookstore.

The original Student Center Library in what is now the campus Bookstore space, on the weekend of the formal campus dedication, October 1964
Another view of the Student Center Library in what is now the campus Bookstore

But even this was not sufficient to store its relatively meager initial holdings, which soon began to spill over into unused spaces in other campus buildings, as this excerpt from the 1965-1966 Student Handbook already shows:

The college library has two locations. The Main Library, main floor of the Student Center, offers a variety of current periodicals and newspapers in addition to the book collection, indexes, and other reference works.  Besides its book collection, the Music and Science Library, Room 127 of the Laboratory Building, includes musical scores, records, and tapes.

Library hours are Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and Sunday 2 p.m. to 5 p.m….

Looking back in The Colonization of a College, Weigle states:

Efforts were made to fund a library building in 1966 and 1967. As early as 1965 my annual report to the Board stated that space had become a problem for the library. Temporary quarters in the future bookstore, a large basement room in the student center, and a laboratory and preparation room in the laboratory building were not sufficient to see the needs of the burgeoning collection. Thanks to Buddy Fogelson, detailed plans and specifications for the library building were ready to go out to bid, but a donor for the building was lacking. In February 1967 the Board authorized an application to the New Mexico State Commission under Title I of the Higher Education Facilities Act. The sum of $311,000 was sought for the library, conditional upon the College’s raising $622,000 in matching funds. The application was approved, but no matching funds were found to enable the College to claim the proffered grant. Pressure was brought to bear to release the Federal funds so that they could be made available to another institution. In the spring of 1968 the College accordingly surrendered its claim to the funds in the hope that they might be claimed again should matching funds become available. No assurances were given to the College on this score. Meanwhile, the collection had grown to exceed 15,000 books, phono-discs, phono-tapes, and musical scores. The main library still occupied space in the student center planned for the bookstore, but the mathematics, science, and music collections were moved to a new temporary home on the first floor of Calliope House in the women’s dormitory complex.

Elsewhere, Weigle writes:

Unfortunately, Buddy’s proposal for a library never materialized because it conflicted with the fundraising for the Western Consolidation Campaign.

That campaign was the first part of a larger and more encompassing campaign with a ten-year fundraising goal of $16,850,000 “to meet the building and endowment needs of the College on both its campuses.” The construction of a Santa Fe library building thus became bound up with this College-wide fundraising effort, to be completed in 1975. It is likely that, when that campaign was launched in 1965, no one ever imagined that it would take another 25 full years for this library building to actually come to fruition.

John Knego, the First Santa Fe Campus Librarian

Construction of the new campus had begun in earnest. But just as vital as the actual physical construction of the new campus was the selection of the faculty, staff, and students who would people it. The first slate of ten tutors for Santa Fe, as recommended by the two deans and the Instruction Committee, was comprised of two women and eight men, several of them (Clarence Kramer, William Darkey, Curtis Wilson, and Thomas Slakey) with a significant number of years of teaching on the Annapolis campus already under their belts, and one of them (Ford K. Brown) with a tenure at the College going all the way back to the founding of the New Program in 1937. A timely article published in March of 1963 in the widely read magazine Saturday Review, along with a newly released St. John’s admission film, brought the College a large wave of applicants for the fall of 1964, resulting in an incoming inaugural freshman class for Santa Fe of 84 students, 33 of them women and 51 men.

And along with these cohorts of faculty and students, to round out the academic side of the house, was the hiring of the campus’s first librarian, John Knego. In The Colonization of a College, Richard Weigle describes the campus library’s earliest beginnings:

Priority was given to the library for the new college, since it would take time to assemble a collection of reference works, class copies of Program books, and books on general subjects. Books had been given by a number of friends, but the first actual step was the appointment of John M. Knego as librarian at the May meeting of the Board in 1963. Knego was the first choice of the faculty committee. He held an M.A. degree in library science from Indiana University and had a working knowledge of the Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Russian, and Croatian languages. At the time of his appointment he was serving as reference librarian at the Kresge Science Library of Wayne State University, in Detroit. He spent the months of December and January 1963-64 in Annapolis acquainting himself with library needs and procedures before moving to Santa Fe at the beginning of February. Meanwhile the Annapolis librarian and the Library Committee of the faculty had been compiling titles of volumes which should be purchased for the Santa Fe library, primarily class copies, texts, and references and secondary books for the Program as a whole. The most helpful source of titles was found to be the Annapolis shelf list.

Temporary space for the library staff to work at accessioning was provided on the second floor of a building across San Francisco Street from the entrance to the La Fonda, a donation from the law firm of Seth, Montgomery, Federici, and Andrews. Four new appointments were made: Mrs. Florence van Dresser, secretary; Mrs. Margaret Frazier, library assistant; Mrs. Diana Chaffee, library assistant; and Ruby Rubideaux, cataloguer. My annual report at the end of the College’s first full year of operation pays tribute to the tremendous feat of building the new library’s book collection:

“John Knego, the Librarian, and his staff have wrought miracles in bringing the new library into being and in acquiring and cataloguing 6,675 volumes during this first year. An additional 7,000 volumes have been received, mostly by gift, and are yet to be acquisitioned. It would be impossible in this report to acknowledge the many donations to the Library, but mention should be made of the gifts of all publications by the Bollingen Foundation and of reprints of the Southwestern Classics by the Rio Grande Press of Chicago. Notable bequests of books were received from the late Edith Ames Crosley, Kenneth Foster, Grace Guest, and Robert Hunt.

The volunteer Library Committee of Santa Fe citizens and others, under the honorary chairmanship of Witter Bynner and the general chairmanship of Mrs. Alexander Girard, contributed importantly to the development of the Library. Through sponsoring benefits and through seeking Friends of the Library, this Committee obtained gifts of nearly $5,000 to endow the purchase of books and $4,360 in memberships for current book acquisitions.”

Greer Garson, a member of the Library Committee, had suggested the idea of making a gift to the College to endow purchase of a book each year forever. As a result there were fourteen perpetual book memorial endowments by the end of 1964 and twenty-two life memberships. Those figures nearly doubled in the first year of the College’s operation.

From an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican, May 10, 1964:

During one of the most delightful parties of early Spring, more than 400 friends of St. John’s College in Santa Fe were introduced Thursday to John M. Knego, librarian for the college, and his young charming wife, Mrs. Knego. Setting for the reception was The Palace with the two private dining rooms in use as well as the brick-paved, walled patio despite the gale-like breeze and its accompanying dust….Mrs. Alexander Girard is serving as chairman of the library committee with Witter Bynner as honorary chairman….The tea table in the gold room held an arrangement of Tropicana roses in an heirloom footed container while the table in the other room held a magnificent display of long-stemmed white roses with small pots of grape ivy encircling the base….Librarians from throughout the area were among the 400 or more guests attending the Thursday afternoon reception….Among the guests were members of the Scientific Library staff at Los Alamos, the Mesa Library there, the Public Library here, the Supreme Court Law Library as well as many who have extensive private libraries.

Also notable in this article is a photo of renowned painter and longtime New Mexico resident Georgia O’Keeffe, seen in attendance and mingling with the other guests.

Diana (Chaffee) Amsden, a Northern New Mexico native and UNM and Harvard-trained anthropologist and archaeologist who was one of that first cadre of librarians to catalogue the books that would become the initial library collection, recalled in an email to Meem Librarian Inga Waite in 2001:

The first librarian was John Knego. He was originally from Croatia, from which he and his wife were refugees; she had terrible memories, and his health was still affected….Mr. Knego was wonderful to work with. Charming, educated, and his English was entertaining; he always said “wolume” rather than “volume”. It was at this time that I learned to drive and he enjoyed jumping with alarm and running when he saw me approach in the driveway/parking lot. I still remember him with affection.

We used IBM typewriters with the type on a rolling ball; this was state-of-the-art. On rare occasions a gear would slip and all of the letters would come out wrong. The books were chosen by the faculty and Mr. Knego, and I suspect that the list was a copy of the card catalog at St. John’s at Annapolis.

At first we started in an upstairs room across the street from the La Fonda. Then we moved into what would become the cook’s apartment [now a storage area in the basement of Peterson Student Center], downstairs under what would be the library [now the Bookstore]. One of my fondest memories was our opening ceremonies. Mr. Meem took me into the dining room and turned on the [Alexander Girard designed] chandelier, a beautiful thing like a Swedish Christmas tree. He looked as happy as a little boy with a new toy. He was an endearing man. They were painting Mr. Girard’s symbols on the wall outside the library. Mrs. Girard was head of the Library Committee and was an elegant-looking and sweet-natured woman whom I liked very much.

I recall that the dining hall had a rule about wearing a necktie, so one student came in wearing his tie around his leg. There were some delightful students.

Another memory is our going for quite a few days to the home of someone (who shall remain nameless) who had bequeathed his library to St. John’s. We cataloged the books, each on a separate slip of paper. It was an impressive library—and we also found a few pornographic books!

Another happy memory is the films shown upstairs [in the Great Hall] periodically. There I first saw Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent film so taut that sound would have broken the intense mood. Later I saw it in Los Angeles at the Shriners’ Auditorium with orchestral accompaniment, and it was not nearly as effective as when silent.

Also, I had the privilege of taking a couple of seminars from Dean Kramer, and discovered how cheated I had been that the classics had not been part of my required curriculum. I had graduated with highest honors from UNM, then earned a Master’s at Harvard. I now have six degrees and know I am not educated by my standards because the classics were not there, and they are not only the foundations, but also the best thinking. 

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