Of all past University of New Mexico presidents, Thomas L. Popejoy ranks among those least likely to be concerned with the construction of new buildings, much less with having one named after himself. Popejoy served as UNM president from 1948 (although he wasn't officially inaugurated until June 5, 1949) to 1968, the longest term in the history of the university. Unlike most of his predecessors, Popejoy concerned himself less with new buildings and programs than he did with what he believed was the heart of the university—its faculty and students. In fact, when first approached about the possibility of having the very concert hall that now bears his name dedicated to him, Popejoy refused, saying that no one on the university's payroll should have a building named after him or her. Popejoy's love for the university ran deep. Born near Raton, N.M., in 1902, he attended UNM as an undergraduate from 1921-25, majoring in economics and playing football. When he became the first native New Mexican to become the university's president, UNM had a student body of roughly 4,400. By the time Popejoy retired, the number had increased to nearly 14,000.
Popejoy is to be credited above all others for having begun and maintained the delicate process of tearing down the boundaries between university and state, and for establishing the cooperative atmosphere that, in large part, is the reason Popejoy Hall exists in the first place. In the late '40s and early '50s, postwar Albuquerque found itself in the midst of a population explosion. No longer considered by the rest of the United States to be a dusty Old West town or part of Mexico, Albuquerque was well on its way to becoming the cultural, political, social and economic heartbeat of New Mexico. Local politicians of the day recognized this and began hatching ideas for a world-class concert hall. Naturally, they approached UNM President Popejoy about locating the proposed venue on campus. Popejoy was open to the idea, but there were many questions to be answered and issues to be addressed. By 1950, an early plan had stalled over the inability to come to terms over whether the new facility should be an auditorium or a concert hall and who would cover the cost of building maintenance. Three years later, a bid before the City Commission sought three acres of university property at the intersection of Cornell and Central for the project. After three months of debate, the University of New Mexico Regents served the City Commission an ultimatum: Either approve the existing plan unanimously or abandon it altogether. Unfortunately, the City Commission chose the latter, and it would be more than six years before a new plan was drawn.
On June 8, 1961, with the blessing of President Popejoy and in accordance with the wishes of the university community, the Regents approved a two-phase plan for an arts complex to be constructed at the site chosen in 1953. Phase one of the project provided for the Department of Music, the Fine Arts Library and the Art Museum. Phase One construction began soon after the plan was approved and, four years later, in January of 1965, Phase Two construction—the concert hall—broke ground.
The concert hall was completed in less than two years at a cost of $2,373,521, which, for what Albuquerque residents got in return, was a paltry sum. The original venue boasted amazing acoustical qualities for the time, courtesy of acoustical consultant Jack Purcell, and the building that housed it, Center for the Arts, was widely lauded for its architectural beauty.
Nearly two thousand concertgoers filled University Concert Hall to capacity one night in October 1966 for the inaugural concert performed by the Utah Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maurice Abravonel. The concert was attended by New York Times critic Howard Taubman who wrote of the new concert hall, “The sound is vivid, indeed brilliant for complete comfort. The hall is worthy of the finest metropolitan ensembles.”
On May 5, 1968, University Concert Hall was renamed Popejoy Hall following the retirement of its namesake.
Today, Popejoy Hall remains a rare acoustical and architectural gem. Over the years, several new large-scale venues have been constructed in the Albuquerque area, but none offer the breadth of technical options that Popejoy offers. With full-fly (able to raise scenery into the ceiling) capabilities, an orchestra pit, sprung floor for dance performances and state-of-the-art lighting, acoustical design and sound capabilities—courtesy of a near-$11 million renovation in the early '90s—no other venue in the state quite lives up to Popejoy's promise. Its long, colorful history, location, the critically acclaimed, world-class performers it draws and its loyal patrons make Popejoy more than just marble and concrete. It's a special and unique landmark in the history of the University of New Mexico and its Albuquerque home.