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Perspective and Progress: Former University Architect Van Dorn Hooker Reflects on 50 Years of Growth at UNM

By Hilary Mayall Jetty

Posted August 15, 2014

Thirty-five thousand people travel through the UNM campus most days, unaware that the iconic Duck Pond would not exist, and campus malls might still be city streets, were it not for the dedication of a University architect.

When Van Dorn Hooker accepted the position as the first University architect in 1963, UNM was on the verge of becoming a major educational institution. Overseeing an evolving master plan and forging successful partnerships on and off campus, Hooker focused on the deliberate creation of a coherent, pedestrian-friendly and beautiful university environment.

His work carried great responsibility. Modern construction had to serve growing populations and blend with the Spanish-Pueblo Revival style of earlier buildings; energy use, art and interiors, access, facilities, funding and preservation were factored in. Infill projects, renovations and removals of older structures were fraught with challenges and controversies.

Sometimes Hooker had to take a stand, even with venerated architects like George Pearl. “One of our criteria was that new buildings had to ‘pay respect’ to other buildings, and fit the context of the area,” Hooker remarked. “George wanted to build Ortega Hall with adobe colored brick, but I didn’t want to introduce another material into the palette. George got upset and stormed out,” he recalled with a twinkle, “but came back later and said I’d made the right decision.”

Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning Geraldine Forbes-Isais lauds Hooker’s approach. “He acknowledged and incorporated the finest architectural elements of the New Mexican vernacular style,” she said. “What appeared a dichotomy to many was, to Van Dorn, a way to plan and grow a modern, forward-looking campus.”

A 1947 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, Hooker married his college sweetheart, Marjorie (Peggy) Mead, one of the first women to receive a B.Arch. from UT. They spent part of their honeymoon in Albuquerque where they first experienced UNM’s campus. A couple of years later a job offer returned them to New Mexico.

Van Dorn was hired by the Santa Fe firm of Meem, Zehner, Holien and Associates in 1951. John Gaw Meem, a guiding force in regional Southwest architecture, had designed several signature buildings at UNM, including Scholes Hall and Zimmerman Library; his firm would design some 30 buildings here.

Van Dorn advanced to partner at McHugh, Hooker, Bradley P. Kidder and Associates; Peggy was one of those associates. A newspaper notice for a campus planner at UNM caught his eye one day. “I thought that might be interesting,” he said. “I thought the campus had great potential.” He was right. Sherman Smith, UNM President Tom Popejoy’s VP for Academic Affairs, soon became a close friend and collaborator. Peggy designed the family’s home in Corrales and resumed her career.

A fellow of both the American Institute of Architects and the Association of University Architects (for which he also served as president), Van Dorn never designed a UNM building by himself. Yet he approved all facets of development at UNM, selecting and coordinating with professional firms, and consulting with the campus planning committee, board of regents and state agencies. He oversaw 75 major construction projects, and UNM received more than 30 design awards for landscapes and buildings.

Van Dorn Hooker. Photo Credit: You & Me Productions. View the video:  Van Dorn Hooker: Campus Architect, Campus Visionary.

Van Dorn Hooker. Photo Credit: You & Me Productions.

An avid historian, Hooker was a driving force behind the creation of the University Archives, vast collections of important images and documents, including John Gaw Meem’s papers and drawings.

His position as a trusted advisor to University administrations did not end with his retirement in 1987. “Van Dorn continued to oversee the physical campus,” stated University Archivist Terry Gugliotta. “It’s personal to him. He has spoken to each new University architect and president.”

Hooker’s books include Only in New Mexico: An Architectural History of the University of New Mexico and Centuries of Hands: An Architectural History of St. Francis of Assisi Church (Ranchos De Taos). He is also a talented artist, his photographic images and delicate watercolor paintings reflecting great affection for New Mexico.

Through the UNM Foundation, the Hookers established a charitable remainder trust, benefitting the architecture school and the archives. After Peggy’s death in 2006, the family endowed the Marjorie Mead Hooker Memorial Visiting Professorship to honor her illustrious career.

“Each year we invite someone held in the highest regard in the profession to give a lecture,” noted Dean Forbes-Isais. “Speakers include internationally renowned architects and esteemed educators like Peter Eisenman, our most recent presenter.”

John Gaw Meem once sent a note to Van Dorn following a specially arranged tour of campus.
“. . . how alive the University seems to be . . . with crowds of students thronging those magnificent malls, and the large number of new buildings,” he wrote. “You have every right to be proud of your achievement.”

“Meem was very much an old school gentleman,” recalled Van Dorn, who also fits that description. He misses a time when architectural renderings were truly an art form. “You had to take courses in painting, pen and ink, pencil, charcoal and perspective,” he explained. “Now that the computer has taken over, you can’t tell whose drawing it is.”

However, technology now enables Gugliotta to introduce new generations to Hooker’s accomplishments. “I’m developing a walking tour App for the UNM campus based on Van Dorn’s work,” she revealed, “including buildings, landscaping, history, art and a series of arboretum tours.”

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