WHEN NEW MEXICO’S TERRITORIAL government decided in 1889 to establish an institution of higher learning in Albuquerque, it called for a school sited on 20 acres of “high and dry” land, uphill from the newly laid railroad tracks of New Town (today’s downtown), and a safer distance still from the raging spring floods of the untamed Río Grande.
When Hodgin Hall opened in 1892, it was a red-brick monolith whose only neighbors were sheep grazing on an undulating slope in front of the Sandía Mountains. But as New Mexico has grown, so has its center of knowledge and creativity, spurring and reflecting the state’s evolution. A walking tour of its lovely main campus offers context for other adventures and a pleasant day immersed in art, history, culture, and learning.
Arriving to campus from Central Avenue, Lobo alumni may feel slightly disoriented. Several of the major buildings on the southern edge of campus have changed dramatically in the past decade: There’s a new physics and astronomy building, the Farris Engineering Center has been totally renovated, and the Johnson Center recreation facilities have a major new addition.
Despite the new facades, much remains familiar, especially the historic architecture in the campus core. Far from the bricks and ivy of an East Coast college, UNM’s Spanish Pueblo Revival style is beloved for its unique expression of Southwestern history and culture. This is where John Gaw Meem, campus architect from 1935 to 1959, defined and refined his distinctive aesthetic.
Allow me to address everyone’s pet peeve about the maze of parking restrictions both on campus and along nearby streets: Just head to the multi-story parking garage between Yale Boulevard and Cornell Drive on Redondo Drive—the university’s circular roadway. Pay for your spot at a kiosk, then, on foot, exit the garage onto Cornell Mall. Facing the Center for the Arts, glance to the left and note the earth-tone, concrete-and-glass architecture building designed by internationally famous architect Antoine Predock. If you need a cup of coffee to power your walk, drop into the micro-Starbucks inside the bookstore and get a push-button java.
START YOUR TOUR AT THE CENTER FOR THE ARTS. Just inside, notice the Culturas del Sol tile mural, a collaboration between the UNM Art Department and the Universidad de las Américas, in Mexico. Farther in is Popejoy Hall, the state’s largest indoor performing arts center, where this year’s schedule includes touring productions of H.M.S. Pinafore, Fiddler on the Roof, Aladdin, and the long-delayed Hamilton.
Read more: The University of New Mexico campus has many beautiful examples of Pueblo Revival architecture, but the oldest—and oddest—may be the Estufa.
On a day without performances, the center’s UNM Art Museum stars, with the state’s largest collection of art. Its strengths include a huge trove of prints, including works dating back to the 15th century and of-the-moment lithographs from UNM’s renowned Tamarind Institute, along with more than 10,000 photographs by artists such as Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Cindy Sherman.
No matter what’s hanging on the walls, the museum hosts regular classes in the Beaumont Newhall Study Room. “We can teach the entire history of photography with just our collection,” says the museum’s director, Arif Khan, who first visited the museum with his high school photography class. Closed during school breaks, it reopens this winter with a new show drawn from the permanent collection.
Back on Cornell Mall, continue toward the center of campus. If you’re ready for food, the Student Union Building offers study-break mainstays that include Dion’s pizza, Blake’s Lotaburger’s sammies and fries, and Twisters’ burritos. Pick up a Satellite coffee or take your green chile cheeseburger with you into the refined Draft & Table taproom for a glass of locally made beer, wine, or cider.
Leave through the back door of the SUB and walk onto a small square with sycamore trees in raised planters. These are just a few of the more than 5,000 trees on this officially designated campus arboretum. Keep an eye out for little plaques identifying notable species. To the right, note the iconic lines of Meem’s Mesa Vista Hall, originally a dorm, house offices for campus staff. A stylized image of its tower was part of the university’s logo for decades.
Read more: What could have been an ordinary classroom at New Mexico Tech University instead holds a fabulous collection of minerals from around the world.
Just ahead is Meem’s masterpiece. Watch out for show-off skateboarders as you cross Smith Plaza toward Zimmerman Library. Meem considered Zimmerman his best public work, and it is widely considered one of the state’s most noteworthy buildings, one that announces its adobe-like presence with two towering wings connected by a shady portal and small cactus garden. “Both Zimmerman and Scholes Hall are monumental, dignified, sculptural representations of the state’s identity,” says Chris Wilson, a landscape architecture professor and founder of the UNM historic preservation and regionalism program. He considers the library “a fitting symbol of a university grounded in place.”
The current entrance belongs to one of three additions that Meem anticipated when he drew the library’s first iteration in 1936. Students now swipe their IDs at turnstiles to enter, but visitors can show any photo ID at the counter to get in. For a quick overview of Zimmerman’s best features, make a sharp left toward the Center for Southwest Research, and then a right into the historic West Wing, where Meem oversaw every detail of construction. Notice the wrought-iron railings, carved vigas, punched-tin light fixtures, and handmade furniture, all crafted by local artisans in Depression-era Works Progress Administration programs.
Retrace your steps and duck your head into the charming Anderson Reading Room, where glass cases show off historic books from the center’s archives. Serious fans of New Mexico art, history, and culture shouldn’t be afraid to ask an archivist to pull out some treasures. (They appreciate the sincere interest of nonresearchers—I promise!) Want to see some of Meem’s original sketches and watercolors? Land grant records? Tony Hillerman’s typewriter? They’re all here.
Read more: As one of the only scientific institutions devoted to a so-called condiment, New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute flourishes in Las Cruces.
Leave Zimmerman through the front entrance and turn right toward the Duck Pond, a relaxing destination that’s been enjoyed by generations of students and faculty. (Please don’t feed the ducks, biology students warn. The fowl are fat enough already.) On the other side of the pond, the twin towers of Meem’s first campus building, Scholes Hall, echo the San Esteban del Rey church at Acoma Pueblo, which Meem also helped preserve.
Here the path curves to the left, leading you to the nondenominational Alumni Memorial Chapel, a popular place for grads to get married. Built in 1962 in the style of a Spanish mission church, its two 100-pound bells were donated by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Peek inside for a look at a beautiful retablo painted in 1983 and 1984 by santero John M. Gonzales.
Behind the chapel is the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, which became Albuquerque’s first public museum when it opened in 1932. Originally used to store artifacts collected by the school’s archaeological digs, it now holds more than 3 million objects from all over the world. The main exhibit, Peoples of the Southwest, includes a model of an archaeological dig at a pit house, plus an informative display of pottery, arrowheads, and bone tools. Kids can touch three metates, used for grinding corn. The small gift shop has an excellent selection of books.
As you exit the museum, turn left toward the Sandías and look for Mitchell Hall. This part of campus is home to some of the oldest buildings on campus, including the Anthropology Annex and Bandelier Hall West, and also shows an evolution. Meem designed all three of these buildings, but Mitchell Hall, from 1951, represents a later phase of his style. It shares with its more romantic predecessors a flat roof, earthy palette, and overall sense of solidity, Wilson says.
Read more: New Mexico State University builds a winning roster of branded products.
Turn right onto Terrace Mall. Terrace Street was a main thoroughfare until the 1960s, when it (like Cornell Drive) was closed to transform the heart of campus into a pedestrian zone. This is the university’s science and engineering area, and it can be a fun treat for visitors. Walk past Clark Hall, on your left, and take a few steps down to the entrance of the underground Centennial Library. A friendly student worker at the desk will let you in. Tell them you want to see MAGIC.
The Map and Geographic Information Center holds the largest collection of maps in the state. Think of something that might have once been mapped, and the friendly, knowledgeable coordinator, Cheyenne Stradinger, will pull amazing things from the flat files. A Sanborn fire map of downtown Albuquerque from the 1930s showing which houses are adobe (most of them) and which are frame? She has it! An aerial map of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque from the 1960s that shows more fields than houses? It’s in the drawer! After Stradinger produces a map of your grandmother’s village from the 1800s, you can ask her to scan it for you using the library’s enormous digital scanner. She can email you the file or print you a copy. (Fees may apply.)
Read more: A Sunbelt city’s mid-century building blitz draws new admirers. Let’s take a tour.
Don’t miss the box marked free maps on your way out. “We’re a federal depository library, so we have a constant supply of new maps,” Stradinger says. That means a constant supply of old maps for you. For free! On a recent visit, I went home with what I thought was an embarrassing number of old U.S. Geological Survey maps, including one of Chaco Canyon that I plan to frame.
Now make your way south to Redondo Drive and turn left, walking back to the garage. On the way, stop in at the UNM Bookstore to load up on Lobo-spirit gear.
As you leave the parking garage, turn right onto Redondo Drive and follow it past Hodgin Hall, heading toward the campus exit onto University Boulevard. At the stop sign, look to your left for the Estufa, which translates to something like “hothouse” and refers to the ceremonial fire that burns inside a traditional kiva. Although many of UNM’s most charming buildings appear to be made of adobe, only two actually are. One is this curious rounded structure, which was built in 1908 for the school’s first fraternity. Modeled after a Santo Domingo Pueblo kiva, its entrance was originally on the roof. Now it has a door but remains a fraternity building. Only members are allowed in, adding to its mystique.
Read more: Architect Jon Anderson’s buildings mirror the distinctive aesthetics of Albuquerque’s striking environs.
EXTRA CREDIT: ART HISTORY
Here are a few art pieces you shouldn’t miss on a campus tour.
Swing behind the Center for the Arts to the bright white Physics & Astronomy and Interdisciplinary Science building, the unexpected home of six murals by modernist painter Raymond Jonson, a founder of the Transcendental Painting Group. The science-themed images, painted in 1934 to decorate UNM’s first library (now the Art Annex, next to Hodgin Hall), fill the stark, contemporary space with color and energy.
The Center of the Universe, a tower of concrete anchored by four tunnels, between Mitchell and Ortega halls, is a piece of conceptual art musing on the x-y-z axes and one’s position in three-dimensional space. The National Endowment for the Arts funded this 1980s project by internationally renowned artist and Galisteo resident Bruce Nauman, whose work often explores themes of alienation and isolation. It initially drew waves of derision, but art lovers today visit the campus just to see this piece, says museum director Arif Khan.
The east wing of Scholes Hall is home to Unión de las Américas, a fresco painted by Jesús Guerrero Galván, a member of the Mexican muralist movement, while he was an artist in residence at UNM in the early 1940s. His human figures share the thick, rounded shapes of one of his contemporaries, Diego Rivera.
Outside the Center for the Arts is the nine-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture Fiesta Jarabe, known on campus as Fiesta Dancers, by Luis Jiménez. People either love or hate the dancers’ muscular features and bold colors. The piece, like many of Jiménez’s works, celebrates the lives of working men and women.
Download these basics to aid your UNM visit.
Potential students and their families can schedule guided tours. Information about self-guided tours is at nmmag.us/unm-tours. Find maps of every corner of the campus (including a walking path around the north campus’s golf course) at nmmag.us/unm-maps.
Self-guided tours of various parts of UNM’s campus arboretum are at nmmag.us/unm-landscape.
A complete guide to UNM’s nine museums and galleries, plus other arty attractions, is at nmmag.us/unm-museums. For a small fee, the Arts & Crafts Studio lets you use pottery wheels, kilns, and jewelry-making equipment.