MONTEZUMA, N.M. When it was built by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in 1882, the imposing Montezuma Castle served as a luxury resort, complete with a casino, bowling alley, and Victorian baths fed by natural hot springs. The turreted, 90,000-square-foot building was a playground for the rich and famous, hosting such power players as Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Emperor Mutsuhito of Japan.
Over the years, though, the castle s fortunes declined until it was eventually abandoned during the Depression. Later, it went through several changes of ownership and was reopened from time to time as a hotel, a hospital, and a seminary.
Finally, in 1981, American industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer purchased it for use as one of the most unusual educational facilities in the world.
Today the castle remains the home of the United World College of the American West, one of 12 UWC campuses in the world and the only one in the United States. Other branches are in Wales, Hong Kong, Singapore, Swaziland, Canada, India, Norway, Italy, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The United World College movement was launched in Wales in 1962 by German educator Kurt Hahn, the same man who helped start Outward Bound. UWC s goal was to bring students from different countries and cultures together and provide them a heavy dose of academics, as well as additional instruction in conflict resolution, tolerance, and international economic development. The college was headed from 1978 to 1995 by Britain s Prince Charles, and is now led by Queen Noor of Jordan and South Africa s Nelson Mandela, whose own children attended the UWC campus in Swaziland.
Like other UWC campuses, the one in Montezuma has about 200 students, nearly all between the ages of 16 and 19. A quarter of them are from the host country, with the remainder coming here from as many as 90 other countries. Nearly all are attending the boarding school on full or partial scholarships.
UWC s two-year International Baccalaureate program is a bridge between high school and college, the rough equivalent of an honors program for high school juniors and seniors. In addition to their studies, students here are required to perform community service projects, such as tutoring in local schools, volunteering in nursing homes, and working on environmental projects.
The local campus president, Lisa Darling, said residents of Las Vegas and other nearby communities have been very welcoming to students of this wacky school in their midst. We give to each other, she said.
In addition to the students community service, a number of the school s concerts, art shows, guest lectures, and other events are open to the public. For their part, many of the locals serve as what Darling called getaway families, hosting students for a home-cooked meal or a weekend away from their studies.
The spacious dining hall where the students and about 50 faculty members eat together has the original hardwood floor and tall stained-glass windows. The room looks like something out of a Harry Potter movie, except for the two large yellow glass sculptures by artist Dale Chihuly that hang from the ceiling like wild abstract chandeliers.
Besides the castle, there are several other buildings on the 110-acre campus that house residence halls and classrooms. One of the newer additions to the complex is the Dwan Light Sanctuary, which opened in 1997. It s a circular stone building with a series of light prisms built into the walls and roof. As the sun moves across the sky, the prisms cast broad moving ribbons of color on the walls and floor of the building s inner chamber.
The light sanctuary is used for meditation and small gatherings, and is open to the public as well as students.
Free, student-led tours of the castle and campus grounds are available on Saturdays throughout the year.