Written by: Mathieu Debic, Graduate Fellow, Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections
For many students (your writer included), mid-October marks the onset of midterms. For those intrepid scholars reading this while burning the midnight oil, it might help to take a moment and remember that you’re not alone. In fact, UNM students have been suffering through (and overcoming!) midterms for over a century. Not least among these victorious scholars was George Pearl, the architect and namesake of George Pearl hall, whose papers and architectural drawings are housed at the Center for Southwest Research in Zimmerman Library.
Originally from central Texas, George Clayton Pearl studied architecture at the University of Texas in Austin in the 1940s. After finishing his degree, he joined Ferguson, Stevens and Associates (later SMPC), an architecture firm in Albuquerque, and worked there until his retirement in 1989. Over the course of his career Pearl was involved in major construction projects in Albuquerque, including the renovation and addition to Zimmerman Library in 1969. Pearl also worked closely with faculty and students at UNM’s school of architecture and advocated for historic preservation. The current home of the UNM School of Architecture, George Pearl Hall, was completed in 2007, just four years after Pearl died in 2003.
Despite Pearl’s storied career in architecture and design, in this post I want to focus on some objects that might seem a bit out of place in his collection. The George Pearl Papers (MSS-782-BC) consist of personal and professional papers, sketchbooks, drawings, and other records produced by Pearl over the course of his career. Some of the drawings and blueprints Pearl produced in his professional capacity are housed in a separate collection, George Pearl Oversized Drawings, Artwork and Files (SWA-Pearl). In fact, these items are kept in a different section of the archives because they are large and need to be kept flat. Given Pearl’s reputation as an architect, the contents of his collection might not seem too surprising. But some unexpected items in the most recent addition to the collection raise interesting questions.
Added to the collection in 2019, Series VI of the George Pearl papers does not contain sketchbooks or drawings. Rather, it includes notebooks that Pearl kept from courses in anthropology and philosophy he took at UNM in the 1950s. These were formerly held in
the George Pearl Reading Room at the Fine Arts and Design Library, but were transferred to the CSWR in 2010. The notebooks consist of loose-leaf, unlined paper held together in vinyl spring-clip binders. Even in his class notes Pearl’s neat, small-caps handwriting betrays his architectural training. (He also appears to have done well on his exams!)
As a former high school and community college instructor I have a fair amount of personal interest in this addition to Pearl’s collection. But aside from shamelessly indulging myself, I also have other reasons for focusing on Pearl’s notebooks. They demonstrate that despite decades of change from Pearl’s day to now, some aspects of university life have remained the same. Students still take notes (sometimes neatly, sometimes less so), and they still write in-class exams in blue books. Interesting enough, but not really what I want to focus on. I really want to highlight this aspect of Pearl’s collection because it shows how archival research leads to all kinds of fascinating and unexpected discoveries. To take Pearl as just one example: why did he keep these notebooks? Surely, as an architect, some of his old notebooks from architecture courses might have been more
Pearl’s notebook for Anthropology 155 in Fall, 1953
worth having around? Pearl had finished his architecture training in Texas by the time he moved to Albuquerque, so why was he taking introductory philosophy and anthropology classes? Was he trying to find new ideas? Indulging a personal interest? Architecture sits at an intersection between physics, engineering, materials science, sociology, fine art, and other disciplines, including anthropology and philosophy. Maybe Pearl got something from these philosophy and anthropology courses that he wanted to preserve, something that influenced his later work? The notebooks are in very good condition; they were clearly kept away from heat, light, bugs, and humidity. Does this suggest some personal importance? Did Pearl have a habit of hoarding things? Or was it just an accident of fate? Maybe these notebooks just happened to land in a box destined for the closet under the stairs, rather than in the garage.
I’m not Pearl’s biographer. In fact, to my knowledge there isn’t a biography of him available. It could very well be that George Pearl took a few courses at UNM out of personal interest, happened to put his notebooks in a box, put that box someplace out of the way, and then forgot all about it.
The world works like that sometimes. But setting the chaotic universe aside for a moment, I want to emphasize the number of new questions and lines of inquiry raised by nothing more than a couple of old notebooks in a box. Pearl was a prolific and talented architect, but he wasn’t just or only an architect. The inclusion of these notebooks in his collection helps to demonstrate a more rounded and complex character, as well as highlight Pearl’s connection to UNM and the Albuquerque area.
A page from Pearl’s philosophy notebook demonstrating his earlier training as an architect as well.
When archivists receive donations of material, they often have to make tough choices about what to keep or accept. Is similar material housed someplace else already? Does the donation have sufficient intrinsic historical interest to take up valuable and limited shelf space? Maybe Pearl got something out of his philosophy and anthropology courses, something beyond a few more credit hours. I like to think he got something that led him to preserve notebooks with no direct relevance to his professional life, notebooks that took up space. It would take more time in the archives to be sure, of course, but it seems likely to me that despite his grounded and “solid” profession, George Pearl found something not only worth learning, but worth holding on to in the more “abstract” disciplines as well.