When Eugene Thaw first came to New Mexico, SFI’s founders were still conceiving a plan to create an independent, interdisciplinary research center to study complex systems.

Almost 30 years later, Thaw spoke at a luncheon in his honor at that Institute, minutes after signing over his former Tesuque, New Mexico, home to SFI – a gift of land and residences that comprises the largest one-time donation in the Institute’s history.

The 36-acre estate, now referred to as SFI’s Tesuque Campus, includes five buildings, art, books, furniture, a meadow, a koi pond with a waterfall, and conservation easements surrounding the property.

Located a short 10-minute drive from SFI’s main campus, the estate is a quiet, contemplative setting for SFI scholars, visitors, and science meetings.

“SFI is deeply grateful to the Thaws for their extraordinary vision and generosity,” says Institute President Jerry Sabloff. “This new campus will give us terrific space to host our small working groups and house visiting scientists.”

Why would Thaw, a retired art appraiser, lifelong art collector and philanthropist, and his wife Clare donate their estate to a research center?

He says he’s often asked a similar question: why he chose the Morgan Library in New York to receive his collection of master drawings. “I generally say this,” he says. “If civilization was ending and you could save one place to start it all over again, it would be the Morgan Library, because it’s Shakespeare folios, it’s Gutenberg bibles, it’s Rembrandt collections, it’s the most incredible repository of literary and aesthetic quality that mankind has ever achieved.

“When I think about the world of science, when everything is going down the tubes and when ignorance is on the rise, if you could save one place that might start discursive thinking all over again, it would be the Santa Fe Institute. They are equivalent intellectual centers.”

He and Clare fretted that selling the property as real estate would have resulted in its quick dismantlement. “There aren’t very many tracts of that size left in the immediate suburbs of Santa Fe,” he says. “It seemed to us that a gift of the property to an organization like the Institute would make more sense. Why not choose to give away the property, before it turns into money, to the right new owners and have it serve a good purpose?”

As a graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Thaw first came to New Mexico in the early 1980s as a member of the board of St. John’s College of Santa Fe. Then, in 1986, he was invited to be an appraiser of the estate of famed painter Georgia O’Keefe, which included hundreds of her paintings.

He arrived a month after O’Keefe’s death, and he and Clare spent 10 days at nearby Bishop’s Lodge. “We fell in love with it, and we bought a house the next year,” he says.

The property has a colorful history. The original house, he says, was “a beautiful piece of architecture” by renowned traditionalist New Mexico architect Betty Stewart that had been written up in House & Garden. It had previously been owned by World War II aviator and colorful Santa Fean Winnie Beasley.

The Thaws used the place as a vacation home until Mr. Thaw retired from art appraising in 1991, when they made Tesuque their primary residence. The estate grew over the years as they acquired adjoining tracts and residences.

One such acquisition – the lot that now features a meadow, gazebo, and koi pond – had been the site of a vacation home of cult spiritual teacher and software designer Frederick Lenz, who would arrive at the property every so often “in a huge white limousine with a secretary and two Scotty dogs,” Thaw says. “He had his home filled with stuffed animals, many of them life-sized, including an elephant and a giraffe, and ticker tape machines to follow his investments.”

The guest house, which later became the Thaw residence, had been owned by Walter Mead of the Mead Paper Company.

In Santa Fe, Thaw took up collecting American Indian art. Through a friend they met Nobel laureate and Institute co-founder Murray Gell-Mann, who introduced them to Geoffrey West, whose work with University of New Mexico professor and SFI External Professor Jim Brown in biological scaling intrigued the Thaws. They began to support SFI’s research in the early 1990s.

Mr. Thaw speaks fondly of the property, and admits to some difficulty giving it up. “It has wonderful trails for walking,” he says. “It has both formal and informal areas. It has great views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It has views of the most beautiful rainbows you’ve ever seen. It is very special for us.

“This gift is with both my head and my heart,” he adds. “I hope that the Institute finds, by experiment and by living with it, the right way to handle it.

“I’d like it to be a place where they can have gatherings of all sorts, and where individuals, visiting scholars, people of interest, can come and simply spend time and have a very pleasant and physically inspiring place to do their work. And I think work of that sort is often done in that kind of seclusion, in that kind of atmosphere.

“It’s different than this building [the Cowan Campus], which is more of a school and more of a busy place. I think the [Tesuque Campus] can be more of a contemplative area, and it might be useful for the Institute to have both. It was the same – the earth and the grass and the trees – for me as it is for the Institute. But the use you make of it has to do with your own imagination and personality.”

See photos of the Tesuque Campus in the SFI Update newsletter (pages 4 and 5)

Read the article in the Santa Fe New Mexican (December 29, 2012)