Hot Springs Time Machine Part One: 1859–1993
11/08/2013 § 11 Comments
The College of Santa Fe closed more than five years ago. It no longer exists.
There is an institution of higher education at 1600 St. Michael’s Drive and many of the same faculty are employed there, but it is not the College of Santa Fe. (It’s the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.)
CSF had a 150-year history in Santa Fe. It’s part of the ongoing history of St. Michael’s High School, which was CSF’s sister school. Laureate Education Inc., the for-profit international educational conglomerate, headquartered in Maryland, that owns Santa Fe University of Art and Design, and the De La Salle Christian Brothers, the founders of CSF, parted ways a few years ago over the use of the Lasallian tradition in SFUAD marketing materials. They are legally prohibited from claiming the Lasallian history, but as far as I can tell they still get to claim that they’ve been in existence since 1947, which is when CSF—then called St. Michael’s College—opened at the edge of town, on the grounds of the abandoned Bruns Army Hospital.
For readers who don’t know me: I graduated from CSF in 1996 with a BA in creative writing. From January 5, 1998, until January 3, 2009, I worked in the CSF marketing department as a writer and editor. I wrote all college marketing materials, from glossy view books to fundraising letters, and wrote for and then served as editor, for five years, of Vistas, the college’s alumni magazine. I also did all public relations for the college, managed the editorial marketing content of the website, and acted as photo editor and art director of photo shoots for the entirety of my employment there.
I’m sure there are things you know far more about than I do. I do not know how to direct a play or edit a film. I do not know how to breakdown data for reports or create formulas for spreadsheets. I don’t know how to ski. I don’t know anything about computer graphics and animation. I can’t perform surgery and I am hopeless with mail merges. The list of things I don’t know is endless. But, aside from some Christian Brothers, a few local historians, and a handful of extremely long-term faculty and staff, I probably know more about the history, marketing efforts, and cultural context of CSF than most people alive.
I’m not trying to be a know-it-all about CSF; I actually am one.
I am not trying to speak for you or determine how you should feel about the rise and fall of the College of Santa Fe, but when it comes to who knows what about what, I simply know more than you do about the college you went to. I was paid to. And if you moved away after your four years or however much inherently finite time you were here, I most definitely know more about the city of Santa Fe and the college’s place in it than you do. And the college’s place in Santa Fe matters, even if it doesn’t matter to you.
The question right now is why am I writing about this, almost six years after CSF closed?
A couple of alumni in Los Angeles are organizing an all-class reunion that is, according to the Facebook event page, being hosted in coordination with SFUAD. From the event page:
“This earth-shattering event will be open to any and ALL CSF, St. Michael’s, and SFUAD alumni and professors, even if you only attended for one year. Basically, if you ever called 1600 St. Michael’s Dr. home, you are welcome. We want to see all of your lovely faces, whether we’ve never seen them, we haven’t seen them in a decade, or we just saw them yesterday, we want to see you.
While having an awesome weekend together is reason enough to come out, we are also hoping that this event will kick off the development of a stronger alumni network. Regardless of what the school was called when you went there, there is no disputing that tons of talent, skill, and knowledge have come out of that place. We have scattered ourselves all around the country and beyond.
Let’s (re)connect and build a system that will help us all in our professional, artistic, academic, and personal endeavors.
That said . . .
We’ve narrowed down potential locations for the event to Santa Fe and LA.”
I am ready to call shenanigans on this whole thing.
There is so much to dig into here that this is going to take more than one post, as this event and my thoughts evolve. But in this post, let’s talk about location.
Inviting St. Michael’s College alumni to a reunion in Los Angeles is a shockingly ignorant move.
St. Michael’s College was founded in 1859 when Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy got four Christian Brothers from France to come to the wilds of northern New Mexico, when it was just a territory, and open a school for boys in a mud hut next to the San Miguel Mission on what was then named College Street and is now known at Old Santa Fe Trail. The mission is in competition with a similar structure in Florida to be known as the oldest church in the United States.
El Colegio de San Miguel, as it was known, was founded a few years after the Loretto Academy for Girls, which was run by nuns. The four Brothers, who traveled to Santa Fe via ship, train, and then covered wagon, arrived on a dark day in October and managed to open the school in a matter of weeks. San Miguel drew students from in town and the surrounding areas, and as far away as California, Texas, and Mexico.
St. Michael’s students ranged in age from elementary school through college. The founding financial plan of San Miguel established that tuition revenue was to come from boarding students so that local boys could come for far less money; many local boys’ families paid their tuition in trade for goods and services, including carpentry and livestock. One of the early boarders from Texas was Conrad Hilton, founder of Hilton Hotels, the man who toyed with Don Draper’s career and triggered his father issues on Mad Men.
The school was chartered by the New Mexico Territorial Legislature in 1874. If you were an educated boy in Santa Fe, you were a graduate of St. Michael’s. When public schools were mandated for the northern part of the state at the turn of the century, the Brothers trained the teachers and taught for free for a time in the buildings on College Street while the schools were being set up.
All along there was financial struggle. That’s what happens when you open a school in a mud hut and no one’s getting paid. It’s a labor of love, and you might never, ever turn a profit. Such is a calling to the Brotherhood, and even the Brothers didn’t always love it.
Brothers were constantly getting sick and tired of the dire conditions in Santa Fe—it was muddy; you were at the mercy of the elements and a somewhat lawless population—and other Brothers were sent to either raise their morale or replace them with newly trained Brothers. Finally, Brother Botulph got St. Michael’s back on track in the early 1900s, which is why there’s a street named after him. It’s near the hospital and you are probably pronouncing it wrong. A lot of people do, including locals. They reverse the “o” and the “u” sounds. The reason why is an enduring mystery for me.
After World War I, financial problems prompted the school to suspend college-level instruction, which was okay for the state because the University of New Mexico was well established by then. But Brother Benildus of Mary, the namesake of Benildus Hall, always planned to find a way to reinstate the college program at St. Michael’s.
And then St. Mike’s burned down in 1926 and had to be rebuilt. If not for the unexpected generosity of a local alumnus businessman, the school would have closed.
After World War II, Brother Benildus paid the government a buck for some barrack buildings and history repeated itself: four Brothers started a college in a matter of weeks.
The Bruns Army Hospital, which was abandoned now that the war was over, was made up of numbered buildings that began with the letter T, which stood for temporary. It turned out they were filled with the dangerous kind of asbestos that can’t be moved, so it cost a fortune to break down and move each building from the campus in a way that wouldn’t kill people, which meant not moving most of the barracks even after it put the college in the hole to insure them as offices and classrooms. (I worked in T-45 until 2005.)
In 1966, St. Michael’s College changed its name to the College of Santa Fe in order to, according to the history I have read and repeated hundreds of times, better connect itself to the city it served and—I’ve heard—likely to distinguish it from St. Michael’s High School, possibly at their request. CSF had become known as something of a national dumping ground for troublemakers who’d been kicked out of other colleges and whose parents were sending them to the desert to be set straight by the Christian Brothers. Many of those men came to Santa Fe, met and married local girls, and stayed. They sent their kids to St. Michael’s High School. This era of men and women, who graduated in the ‘60s and ‘70s, ran the bingo night at Alumni Hall for decades, raising tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars for scholarships.
Point of order: Until its conversion to Laureate books, the legal name of the College of Santa Fe was “the College of the Christian Brothers of New Mexico.” The legal name of St. Michael’s High School is still “St. Michael’s College.”
CSF began admitting girls the same year the name changed. St. Michael’s High School, which was at that point still located downtown on Old Santa Fe Trail, broke ground around the same time on its new campus on Siringo Road, not far from CSF. When the Loretto Academy closed in 1968, St. Michael’s High School also went co-ed. The era saw Brother Luke Roney, president of CSF, head to Chicago to meet with the North Central Association of College and Schools to get CSF nationally accredited as a bonafide degree-granting institution of higher education—not that they hadn’t already been granting degrees.
To a huge number of 1960s alumni from Loretto Academy, St. Michael’s High School, and St. Michael’s College, this all happened just a few years ago.
Santa Fe is a small town. Not everyone is a weirdo hippie artist type; we also have football culture. St. Michael’s High School alumni are a fiercely dedicated and proud bunch. They have numerous reunions. They love their Horsemen, and the Horsemen win, a lot. Until CSF got rid of sports (the first time) in 1986, they were also fiercely dedicated to the Knights, as were many Santa Feans. The basketball team was a big deal but we also had volleyball and tennis, among other sports. CSF also had a frat and sorority culture, which died with sports. When CSF got rid of sports, a major connection between the college and the town was lost, and in some quarters that connection is still actively mourned.
In the 1970s, social work was the biggest major at CSF. Nursing was also huge. And then Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico, started doing incredible education in social work, and they attracted a lot of students who might otherwise have gone to CSF. And then Santa Fe Community College opened in the early 1980s, and their nursing program was much less expensive, and they attracted a lot of students who might otherwise have gone to CSF.
Other locals headed to UNM in Albuquerque, which was less expensive and in a city, which was appealing to many locals who wanted to spread their wings. The college took a huge hit after the people coming to school on the GI Bill during and after the Vietnam War tapered off.
In the 1980s, the city of Santa Fe was becoming more and more well-known for its art scene. Probably due to this, more and more students who came to CSF from out of state were asking for art classes to complement the liberal arts core. In 1986, art became an official department separate from humanities, chaired by Dick Cook. In 1989, Greg Glazner founded the creative writing program, and in 1990, Joseph Dispenza and some new faculty recruits, Carole Evans among them, founded communication arts, which later became known as moving image arts. (Dispenza was replaced by Jonathan Wacks a few years later.) The theater department had been in existence since the early 1970s; the music department was founded in the late 1980s and became separate from theater in the late 1990s. The documentary studies program was a late entry into the game, founded just a few years before the college closed.
Majors also existed in English, business, various scientific disciplines, psychology, social science, education, theology, and other areas of study. CSF was a liberal arts college that offers a range of majors, including the arts—no different from hundreds of other small liberal arts colleges in the United States. But the number of art majors never equaled the number of students lost in other majors. The enrollment shortfall started 25 years ago and increased in seriousness and severity as other costs increased.
When James Fries officially took over the college presidency in 1987, he wanted to capitalize on the popularity of Santa Fe as an arts and culture tourist destination by opening a sound stage. According to Brother Brian Dybowski, who I interviewed prior to the college’s closure when I was instructed to find work for myself that didn’t cost anything, Fries believed that if he built the Garson Studios, Hollywood would come knocking. He didn’t understand marketing—a blindness that I can attest also cost the college decades of ground in recruitment, since we weren’t playing with the big boys in terms of messaging.
Also, the campus looked like an abandoned Army hospital with some yellow brick buildings on a mud-quad. (There was no grass on the Quad until the early 1990s.) The look of the campus became a more serious issue for recruitment and retention as the general public became more consumer-like regarding college and the creature comforts and opportunities it offered. CSF was always more of a DIY place than that. In the early days, students did their own cleaning and maintenance, including fixing barrack roofs.
Despite some notable early film projects, the film studios didn’t really earn their keep until tax incentives were passed in the state and film and television productions swarmed. No Country for Old Men was filmed at the Garson Studios, as were lots of other films. But it was too late.
The college had no money. The College of Santa Fe has never had any money. There has literally never been a 20-year period that didn’t find the college in danger of closing more than once.
And by the early ‘90s, the Christian Brothers were growing old and dying. The order as a whole was shrinking. More and more lay teachers were hired to fill the ranks, lay teachers who drew nationally competitive salaries that were not donated back to the college as a significant portion of Brothers’ salaries were.
Obviously, there’s more to the story.
Next: When you live here, college nostalgia doesn’t exist. CSF is always in your peripheral vision. I live off Siringo Road. On a busy day, I pass the back entrance to the college eight times.
Note: This post was edited on 11/10/2013 to reflect Joseph Dispenza’s role in the formation of the film department at CSF.