Santa Fe’s New Solar Array Catalyzes Cultural and Historical Preservation Conversations

The recent solar panel installation at St. John’s Santa Fe campus is great for the college—and the environment. Could it also be beneficial for rethinking the city’s cultural and historical preservation?

May 19, 2023 | By Aayush Thapa (SFGI23)

Santa Fe Solar Array St Johns College
The St. John’s College solar array in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Drive up to St. John’s College in Santa Fe these days, and you will be greeted by a large solar array across the street from the school’s entrance sign. Rows of sleek black panels organized in a field adjacent to the campus tennis court contrast with the patchwork of earthy red-and-brown buildings in the distance. St. John’s College is now home to the largest solar installation in the Santa Fe historic district, with 1,670 solar panels and 20 electric vehicle charging stations. In a city that was founded in 1610 and recognized 400 years later by UNESCO for its continuing commitment to crafts and folk art, such forward-looking progress does not come easily.

While the solar panels set the campus apart from most traditional Pueblo-style designs in Santa Fe, the change isn’t just visual. There are obvious cost-saving benefits to St. John’s solar initiative, with the college poised to save more than $100,000 annually on electricity costs. Many campus buildings also have new and improved LED lighting features, and other upgrades include charging stations for laptops and smartphones on campus benches.

Tom Samuels (SF19) is thrilled to see St. John’s going solar. He introduced the idea to campus officials when he was a sophomore, recognizing its potential for the school on multiple levels.

“It made sense because of the [sunny] location of the college and because sustainable measures are going to make the college more attractive to potential students,” Samuels said. “Sustainability is, in fact, one of the first things that potential students ask about when they are applying to colleges.”

Santa Fe president Mark Roosevelt was immediately encouraging and started working with Samuels to launch the initiative. Next steps involved tutors, staff, and other students: When Samuels shared his vision with classmates, he received an outpouring of enthusiasm, and it ultimately shaped the class of 2019’s Senior Class Gift. “One hundred percent of the 2019 class participated in the Senior Class Gift, which means everyone donated to the energy audit that was the first step for the solar installation,” Samuels said.

Samuels figured the solar array was a win-win in that it would also be good for the wider Santa Fe community. Residents access the city’s Atalaya Mountain hiking trail via the campus, and now the trailhead parking lot features charging stations for electric vehicles and shaded areas created by the solar panels. Hiking enthusiasts and college visitors will benefit from an arrangement scarcely seen in other local neighborhoods—although, as it turns out, there’s a long-standing reason why setups like these aren’t more common.

When the architect John Gaw Meem first came to Santa Fe in 1920, hoping to recover from tuberculosis, he discovered a love for the architecture of the city. Inspired by Pueblo and Spanish colonial building techniques, he left his engineering job to design buildings instead. Throughout his architectural career, Meem left his stamp on his beloved city by designing many earthy and textured Pueblo-style buildings. His aesthetic was shaped by traditional adobe techniques and construction principles indigenous to the Southwest—a look that prompts many visitors to Santa Fe to describe its charm as like “walking into the past.”

Preserving the past was indeed part and parcel of Meem’s vision. His most influential contribution to the cause came in the form of a historical zoning ordinance, which provides specifications for building designs in the city. He wanted places in Santa Fe to look unaffected by modern trends in art and architecture, just like his own buildings. (St. John’s College itself is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Historic Santa Fe Foundation’s Register of Historic Properties.)

That the strikingly modern solar panels clash with the city’s traditional architectural uniformity is cause for some debate. Its downtown area, which is most obligated to adhere to Meem’s ordinance, contains hardly any visible solar installations. Flynn Larson, the interdisciplinary cultural resources specialist for the National Parks Service, says a narrow view of preservation has limited Santa Fe’s expansion into solar initiatives. “Historic districts are more than architecture—they are living communities. Places like St. John’s should continue to evolve and adapt to ensure they are able to sustain their mission as a college,” she said.

Like Larson, there are others who believe that a broader and bolder approach towards preservation best suits St. John’s. “Santa Fe is a progressive city,” said Pete Warzel, executive director at the Historic Santa Fe Foundation, a nonprofit co-founded by Meem himself devoted to preservation and education initiatives. “The solar project at St. John’s is a progressive step that has been taken, from what I can tell, without compromising any of the things—including architectural integrity—that make St. John’s so significant. In fact, with the reputation of learning that St. John’s has, it makes perfect sense that it also leads the way in measures that help the environment.”

It’s hard to deny the relationship between Santa Fe’s ever-constant quest for historic preservation and St. John’s College. The very land on which the school stands once belonged to Meem, who gifted it to St. John’s in the 1960s. No doubt, he thought that St. John’s presence would be beneficial for the city he loved. But perhaps he also concurred with St. John’s emphasis on preserving the past and its mission to educate students by learning from earlier generations and making them feel present.

A St. John’s education is timely because of the pressing questions raised by the Great Books and timeless because in studying the past, the curriculum does not stay frozen there. One cannot help but think this is what Meem advocated for in terms of architecture and cultural preservation. A broad view of preservation, in terms of learning from prior eras and moving forward by thoughtfully integrating said lessons, is implied in the college’s mission—and, perhaps, in Meem’s vision for Santa Fe.

The sun is rising on the St. John’s solar panels as well as on a more encompassing view of preservation itself. Aside from the obvious benefits of the college’s new solar initiative, it also proposes new possibilities for the city surrounding it.