Editor’s note: The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?,” a once a month column in which writer Elaine Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names.
Most people who have visited the University of New Mexico are no stranger to the name Zimmerman.
It graces one of the most architecturally stunning and most-used buildings on the 133-year-old campus. It’s the name of the main library at UNM where thousands of students flock every year to do research, study with friends, check out materials, attend lectures and even grab a coffee.
What many might not know is that the library was named for the school’s seventh president, James Fulton Zimmerman, who presided over 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 just two years later. He served in that role 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 to make sure the university’s architecture reflected the culture of the state, which was not a popular choice at the time.
Zimmerman Library is designed in the Spanish Pueblo Revival style that was popular in New Mexico during the earlier part of the 20th century. Spanish Pueblo Revival designs are a mash-up of two cultural styles – the Spanish and Pueblo Indians. Architects drew a little from each to create a style that has come to symbolize New Mexico. Features include flat roofs, the walls with rounded corners, vigas, irregular parapets. Several UNM buildings already existed that had adopted the style when Zimmerman Library was built, including the remodel of Hodgin Hall seen today.
It’s fitting that the library was named after him because it was Zimmerman who unified the campus’ architecture into one 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 push back, with racist undertones, from the regents who didn’t understand the allure or respect the architecture used by local Native Americans. They wanted the style to mimic what was being done on the East Coast. Tight resigned without ever seeing his dream realized.
When Zimmerman became president, he did not shy away from embracing the style. He unapologetically set out to create the campus Tight had envisioned. Although Zimmerman was born in Missouri and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degree at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York, he did not want UNM to emulate East Coast or any other college campuses. He wanted the school to create an identity that represented 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 manner which Tight had 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 feature tall windows and high ceilings with long wooden tables. Hand-crafted, carved vigas were done by local artists. The tower of the library can be seen from different vantage points on campus.
The library was occupied for the first time on Monday, March 21, 1938. The previous Saturday, the university band led students and faculty as they paraded, library books in hand, from the old to the new building.
Zimmerman was also praised for turning a scholarly eye toward the importance of New Spain and colonization to New Mexico history. He knew that what was considered American history did not necessarily apply to the people of New Mexico. Their story was that of the Native people who lived here for centuries and the Spanish Empire who colonized the area.
The library, from the start, began collecting materials relevant to the state’s own story. The Center for Southwest Research and Zimmerman Library house some of the finest collections of Hispano history in the world.
Zimmerman’s career in education began in 1905 when he took a teaching position at the public schools of Bollinger County, Missouri. He went on to become a teacher, administrator and college instructor in Tennessee.
Zimmerman was only 57 when heart problems took his life. His legacy now lives on in the rooms of the library he ushered into existence.
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email writer Elaine Briseño at firstname.lastname@example.org.