Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 29, 2016

Montezuma, New Mexico: Dwan Light Sanctuary

There’s a remarkable building in north central New Mexico: the Dwan Light Sanctuary.

Drive a little over 125 highway miles (slightly more than 2 hours) north of Albuquerque to the east shoulder of the Sangre de Christo Mountains to Montezuma, New Mexico.

Montezuma map crop

Montezuma is in the red square at upper right, near Las Vegas. Albuquerque is in the lower left and Santa Fe in the upper center.

Montezuma is home to the Armand Hammer United World College – USA (UWC).

United World College Brad Nixon 0848 (640x480)

United World Colleges are an international educational organization based in the United Kingdom. They’re primarily 2-year colleges, and their mission is to promote international understanding by assembling groups of students from diverse backgrounds through a program of education that emphasizes cooperation and collaborative effort. To read more about the United World College -USA, CLICK HERE.

The building in the photo above is named the Davis International Center, but it’s easy to see how it acquired its nickname: Montezuma Castle.

United World College Brad Nixon 0860 (640x496)

It was built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1886 as “Las Vegas Hot Springs,” and you can still bathe in the hot springs in Montezuma. It operated as a hotel until 1903, then went through a variety of other hands, including several church organizations, until it was acquired by philanthropist Armand Hammer in 1981, who established that American branch of UWC.

There are other buildings on the 100-acre campus. Today’s post focuses on one of the smallest.

I’m one of those travelers who’s spent a lot of time in a wide variety of religious structures, but primarily to admire the architecture rather than to worship something less tangible. Like most educational institutions, UWC – USA has a chapel. It’s known as the Dwan Light Sanctuary.

Dwan Light Sanctuary Brad Nixon 0853 (640x480)

Built in 1996, the name of the Sanctuary comes from its founder, Virginia Dwan, an extremely influential art gallery owner and collector, who from 1959 – 1971 operated galleries in Los Angeles and New York that featured some of the groundbreaking abstract impressionist, pop, minimalist, conceptual and earthwork art of the era.

Another view of the exterior provides a clue about why this is a “light sanctuary.”

Dwan Light Sanctuary Brad Nixon 0858 (640x480)

On the left is a skylight with prisms of glass. The interior of the structure is nearly entirely white and unadorned. As the desert sun crosses the sky, the prisms refract the light, casting incessantly changing patterns of rainbow light on the surfaces of the space.

Dwan Light Sanctuary Brad Nixon 0856 (480x640)

One never quite inhabits the same space twice in the Sanctuary, no matter how many times one visits, thanks to the constantly shifting angle of sunlight with time of day and the turn of the seasons.

It’s a remarkable experience. Many sacred places use light in memorable ways, whether through stained glass or other means. At the Dwan Light Sanctuary, there is no pictorial imagery in glass, no candles or artwork; there is only the light itself. Visitors to New Mexico are often struck by the quality of the high desert light. Here, it’s transformed in a way that bears a great deal of contemplation.

Any religious structure is architecture intended to serve some spiritual purpose, and I’ve been moved by the spiritual nature of many places and structures, from Stonehenge to mighty cathedrals and tiny churches to ancient ruins. Dwan Light Sanctuary immediately became one of my favorites among them.

What will you see when you visit the Sanctuary? It depends on the light, and how you look at it.

Dwan Chapel United World College Brad Nixon 0852 (640x480)

To learn more about Virginia Dwan’s career as gallery owner, art patron and collector read here.

Most of the photographs in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2018


  1. Thank you for writing about this serene, light-filled refuge. The walk up the hill to the sanctuary is remarkable too — like being in an other-worldly haven of peace.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Insightful and beautiful post. I have been fortunate to have been able to visit many marvelous cathedrals in France. But I have never seen light used in such an imaginative and creative way as you have shown us in this sanctuary that I was previously unaware of. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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