Go West, Young College: A Brief History of St. John’s Santa Fe Campus

March 29, 2024 | By Philip Psaledakis (SF25)

St. John’s Santa Fe is turning 60! To celebrate, we’ll be looking back at key figures, moments, and movements from the campus’s past, all of which have proved instrumental in transforming the foothills of Monte Sol into a beloved home for generations of Johnnies.

St. John’s College is uniquely situated in the world of higher education—not just for its distinctive Program, but for the Program being shared by two campuses, two faculties, and two student bodies in vastly different regions. Despite the environmental, cultural, and historic differences between Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, both campuses are deeply united in their mission to provide a true liberal arts education. Perhaps no one was more committed to this cause than Richard Weigle, who served as St. John’s president for 31 years and played a key role in establishing the school’s Santa Fe location.

John Gaw Meem and Richard Weigle in 1961, looking over the land that would soon become the site of St. John’s College Santa Fe.

In his 1985 book The Colonization of a College: The Beginnings and Early History of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, Weigle wrote, “Students must learn to think for themselves. They must learn to view concrete situations, to deliberate by formulating clear alternatives, and to arrive at a deciding choice. Under the discipline of the liberal arts they can acquire the habit of listening to reason. A genuinely conceived liberal arts curriculum must aim at this most far-reaching of all human goals.”

Strong conviction in this goal, along with a rising number of applicants to the college in Annapolis, inspired Weigle in the late 1950s to establish another St. John’s in a different region of America. “Here was an opportunity to carry ‘the gospel according to St. John’s’ into a totally different part of the country,” he wrote. “Here was a chance to create a twin for the Annapolis campus with concomitant interchange of ideas, faculty, and students.”

Weigle, along with his wife Mary, successfully oversaw the expansion of St. John’s and brought the college to Santa Fe. Here’s a brief overview of why—and how—this all unfolded.

The Search

In 1959, Milton Mayer, a well-known journalist, publicist, and educator, visited his daughter, who was then enrolled at St. John’s in Annapolis. During this visit, he informed Weigle of a group in California who wanted to establish a liberal arts college similar to ours. He asked Weigle whether he would join their group as an advisor, and Weigle agreed, traveling to the proposed location on the Monterey Peninsula. It soon became clear that if they were to proceed in Monterey, St. John’s would have to take over the effort of establishing a new college from the ground up due to political, organizational, and financial logistics. At the same time, the Claremont Colleges were hoping to incorporate St. John’s into its system and bring it to California, officially extending the school a place in its consortium in 1960.

Even before Weigle’s trip to Monterey, educators at St. John’s College knew that the school had to expand. Weigle had even submitted a plan of enlargement to the college’s Board of Visitors and Governors. He writes that he “envisioned six small colleges strategically placed over the country, each limited to 300 students, and each maintaining the same kind of high academic standards.”

Though the simultaneous opportunities in Monterey and California gave St. John’s confidence in thinking that expansion was feasible and not a far-off hope, both locations had their drawbacks. Monterey lacked sufficient land, governance, and finances, while St. John's administrators feared that the college would lose its distinctive character under the Claremont College system’s external and centralized governance. The board even briefly considered expanding enrollment in Annapolis in lieu of establishing a new campus, but this was such an unpopular idea with students that they burned President Weigle in effigy before a Friday night lecture. In retrospect, he quipped that this was “an honor usually reserved for losing football coaches!”

Despite the early challenges of executing a never-tried experiment in higher education, Weigle remained convinced of the school’s need for a second campus. Once it was decided that Monterey and Claremont were imperfect prospects, St. John’s publicized its plan to expand. Coverage flooded the press, and numerous parties wrote to St. John’s nominating themselves for its second campus. Thirty-two cities, large and small—from Cave Junction, Oregon, to Cooperstown, New York—offered the school a home. Notably, Santa Fe was not even on this first list.

According to Weigle, the East Coast cities that had made the bid “were almost automatically eliminated from consideration, for the assumption was that a second campus should draw on an entirely new and different geographical area. There were two other major assumptions as well—the desirability of a pleasant climate and the necessity for a community enthusiastically disposed towards St. John’s College and its educational philosophy.”

So how did Santa Fe enter the picture?

The Santa Fe Bid

Weigle toured campus locations, culling the list of prospective sites. He planned to tour Western cities with his wife Mary after the Association of American Colleges met in Denver, Colorado, in January 1961. During their stay in Denver, Mary dedicated a day to touring the area herself. As she left her hotel room, in her words:

... A ‘voice’ came over me [and] said ‘Go back to your room.’ … Slightly annoyed, I walked across the lobby, placed my key at the desk, and started toward the door to go out. At that moment the ‘voice’ became more agitated, and I placed my hand on the door to push it open. I was almost paralyzed not able to open the door. Perplexed, annoyed, mad, confused I turned walked back across the lobby to the desk and asked for my room key retreated to the elevator and into our room, slamming the door so hard behind me that I almost knocked it off its hinges.”

I threw myself on the bed … and the telephone rang. It was Robert McKinney phoning from New York. “Mary, have you ever thought of bringing St. John’s College to Santa Fe?” Since I was ‘steaming under the collar,’ I almost replied: “Where is Santa Fe?” But I didn’t, and I said that I would find Dick and have him return the call within 45 minutes and I did.

Robert McKinney was the publisher and editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican, as well as the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and a former member of the St. John’s board. After completing their initial trip, Weigle and Mary met McKinney in Santa Fe. There they visited museums and cultural sites and had a fateful lunch with famed Southwestern architect John Gaw Meem.

During a lull in conversation during the meal, Meem directly asked, “Dr. Weigle, if you were to bring St. John’s College here, how much land and what kind of land would you need?” Weigle replied that the new campus ought to be around 70 acres—twice the size of the campus in Annapolis—and that it must be reasonably level, outside of the city center, and have access to utilities. Meem responded: “Well, Mrs. Meem and I have a little land just over the hill here, and we would be glad to give that to St. John’s College if you should decide to come to Santa Fe.”

Jaws dropped around the table; Weigle himself was rendered speechless. The offer’s enormity was not fully understood until the group visited the land and Meem revealed he would be gifting the college more than 200 acres. Weigle later found out that there was also a group of Santa Fe locals already hoping to establish a liberal arts college in the city who would offer local organized support for the St. John’s effort.

Three of four finalists for the new St. John’s campus were in California—Claremont, Monterey, and Riverside. Santa Fe was the lone desert town. To make the decision, Weigle asked a group of Annapolis faculty members to visit the final sites and choose for themselves, hoping that “a unanimous recommendation might go from the Faculty to the Board.” It was, after all, the tutors and their families who had to move to an unfamiliar place and establish the new college’s first teaching cohort. The five-person committee consisted of Weigle and educators Douglas Allanbrook, Robert Bart, William A. Darkey, Jr., and Barbara Leonard. Collectively, these tutors had spent some 50 years at the college, specializing in all areas of the Program.

The committee’s final choices were Monterey and Santa Fe (although one committee member initially opposed any college expansion and thought that all areas west of the Hudson River should be written off). In deciding between the two, much of this decision weighed on whether they would be welcomed by these prospective communities. “Tutors said that their hosts in Monterey had said how fortunate the College would be to locate on the Peninsula,” Weigle concluded. “By contrast, the people in Santa Fe had said how lucky they would be if St. John’s were to choose Santa Fe. In the end, and after long and careful deliberation, the tutors decided to recommend Santa Fe to the faculty at its special meeting.” Following additional discussion, the Annapolis faculty voted unanimously to submit Santa Fe to the board as the desired choice for a second campus.

February 22, 1961

On this day, the board held its regular quarterly meeting on the Annapolis campus.

Members had previously been given an in-depth document compiled by Weigle outlining the history, pros, and cons of the four final sites, along with the faculty’s recommendation of Santa Fe. Claremont was an intellectually stimulating location, but the St. John’s faculty was worried about involvement in a system of five conventional institutions. They also knew that Johnnies would not only not have the time to partake in the curricula of the other colleges but would also not be able to transfer between them due to our distinct academic program. The Monterey Peninsula site was considered the most beautiful, but local fundraising was an issue and the land’s severe contours posed serious building challenges and increased construction costs. The Mission Inn in Riverside would have been nearly completely furnished and came with added revenue from other properties owned by the Inn, but board members were averse to the prospect of locating the second campus on a mere five acres in the middle of the Los Angeles metro area.

Finally, there was Santa Fe, the most recently proposed city. It was noted to the board that there was not a single dissenting voice among the entire Annapolis faculty in recommending the site, a 232-acre plot on Monte Sol’s pinyon-juniper filled slope. (The Meem family had offered St. John’s 214 acres, and a prominent local couple, Sallie and Bill Lippincott, donated an additional 18 acres mostly contiguous with the other 214.)

At 7,300 feet above sea level, the entire site was within city limits, yet still two miles away from Santa Fe’s historic plaza. Though located on a slope, there was just a 400-foot elevation gain from the campus’s lowest point to its highest, and the site was surrounded by a city park, an arroyo, and the Santa Fe National Forest. From the parcel of land, one could view three different mountain ranges—the Sandias, the Jemez, and the Sangre de Cristos, all of which are snow-covered for a good portion of the year. There was already a city road that led from downtown to the property’s edge, and the land would have access to water, gas, and electricity.

Santa Fe was also similar to Annapolis in many ways. Both are state capitals, one being British Colonial and the other Spanish Colonial; each at the time were home to roughly 35,000 people (though today Santa Fe has a population of nearly 90,000); neither city was then served by railroad or airline; both have “impossible street patterns,” according to Weigle; and both exist in the shadows of larger nearby cities.

Santa Fe also boasted a library and museum system, the School of American Research (today called the School for Advanced Research), the Santa Fe Opera, two symphony orchestras, and numerous private art galleries. Plus, the scientific community of Los Alamos, along with the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, was just 35 miles away. Officials from the laboratory were enthusiastic about St. John’s joining the local community and even expressed interest in becoming part-time tutors and advisers.

Finally, St. John’s would face little to no regional competition, as it would be the only accredited independent liberal arts college in New Mexico and in neighboring Arizona, and the Santa Fe community was enthusiastic about the prospect of having a school of St. John’s caliber in town. The few downsides they could find were that Santa Fe was remote and difficult to access, that it would be challenging to meld the St. John’s Program with local Native American and Spanish cultural traditions, and that the state’s small population would make it difficult to attract enough students.

The Decision

In the end, Santa Fe was chosen for St. John’s second campus on February 22, 1961, and a tentative timeline was immediately proposed for getting it off the ground. The next day, an article entitled “The Feeling is Mutual” was printed in the New Mexican. Some sentiments from the article:

Many Santa Feans have wanted a liberal arts college for years. But even the most optimistic Santa Feans could hardly have hoped to have a college founded here with the prestige of St. John’s nor one which so uniquely fits into that real but hard-to-define pattern called the “Santa Fe Spirit.” ... In many ways the philosophies which have given St. John’s its illustrious reputation perfectly match the civic philosophies that give Santa Fe its claim to the title of “City Different.” Both have refused to sacrifice their spirit for the sake of bigness. Both share the same sense of values. Both, we believe, are unique in their field of being.

Groundbreaking commenced in 1963, and on October 1, 1964, St. John’s Santa Fe welcomed its very first freshman class. The campus was built in the Territorial Revival style, which was developed by John Gaw Meem himself in the early 1930s and has inspired much of northern New Mexico’s modern architecture. With its earth-tone walls, flat roofs, and wide placitas, the Santa Fe campus pays homage to the region’s past. It not only ushered in a new chapter for the surrounding city, attracting inhabitants and bolstering local educational resources, but also for the small but rigorous liberal arts college that had found a new home in the West.