James Fulton Zimmerman threw himself unabashedly into the creation of the UNM campus envisioned by his predecessor
Editor’s Note: The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?”, a monthly column in which writer Elaine Briseño will give a brief history of how places in New Mexico have received their name.
Most people who have visited the University of New Mexico are no strangers to the Zimmerman name.
It adorns one of the most architecturally stunning and widely used buildings on the 133-year-old campus. It is the name of UNM’s main library where thousands of students flock each year to do research, study with friends, consult documents, attend lectures and even have a coffee.
What many may not know is that the library is named after the school’s seventh president, James Fulton Zimmerman, who served as president of the university for 17 years. The library was built during his tenure in 1938 and named after him in 1961.
Zimmerman came to UNM in 1925 as an associate professor of political science and was named president two years later. He held this position until his death in October 1944. Although it was his first time living in the Southwest, Zimmerman fell in love with New Mexico. It was he who fought for the architecture of the university to reflect the culture of the state, which was not a popular choice at the time.
The Zimmerman Library is designed in the Spanish Pueblo Revival style that was popular in New Mexico in the early 20th century. Spanish Pueblo Revival designs are a blend of two cultural styles – Spaniards and Pueblo Indians. The architects took a little inspiration from each to create a style that has become the symbol of New Mexico. Features include flat roofs, rounded corner walls, vigas, irregular parapets. Several UNM buildings already existed and adopted the style when the Zimmerman Library was built, including the Hodgin Hall remodel seen today.
It is fitting that the library bears his name because it was Zimmerman who unified the architecture of the campus into a single style.
University of New Mexico President William G. Tight, who served from 1902 to 1909, had dreamed of a “pueblo on the mesa” and wanted the school to adopt the Spanish Pueblo style for all of its buildings. . But his efforts were not well received, according to a 2013 documentary about the library. There was pushback, with racist undertones, from regents who did not understand the appeal or respect the architecture used by local Native Americans. They wanted the style to mimic what was being done on the East Coast. Tight quit without ever seeing his dream come true.
When Zimmerman became president, he didn’t shy away from embracing the style. He shamelessly set about creating the campus Tight had envisioned. Although Zimmerman was born in Missouri and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York, he didn’t want UNM to emulate the East Coast or any other college campus. He wanted the school to create an identity that represents the culture of New Mexico and its history.
Zimmerman worked with university architect John Gaw Meem, who was an expert in the style, to expand the university in the way Tight envisioned. Federal money made available with the New Deal gave Meem and Zimmerman the means to design and build a library of grandeur.
The large reading rooms on the first floor have tall windows and high ceilings with long wooden tables. Hand-carved vigas were made by local artists. The Library Tower can be seen from various vantage points on campus.
The library was first occupied on Monday, March 21, 1938. The previous Saturday, the university marching band led students and faculty as they marched, library books in hand, from the old to the new building .
Zimmerman has also been praised for taking a scholarly look at the importance of New Spain and settlement in New Mexico’s history. He knew that what was considered American history did not necessarily apply to the people of New Mexico. Their history is that of the Native Americans who lived here for centuries and the Spanish Empire which colonized the area.
The library, from the very beginning, began to collect materials relevant to the state’s own history. The Center for Southwest Research and the Zimmerman Library house some of the finest collections of Hispanic history in the world.
Zimmerman’s career in education began in 1905 when he took a job teaching public schools in Bollinger County, Missouri. He then became a teacher, administrator, and instructor at a college in Tennessee.
Zimmerman was only 57 when heart problems claimed his life. His legacy now lives on in the halls of the library he inaugurated.
Curious to know how a city, a street or a building gets its name? Email editor Elaine Briseño at [email protected]