pearl in the desert

A New Mexico treasure, George C. Pearl combines innovation, problem solving, inventiveness, and a deep sensitivity to place.

This article first appeared in Spring 2002 Su Casa

Architect George Pearl, FAIA, has been called a “New Mexico treasure.” He’s done so much good for so many folks and communities in our state, and designed and renovated so many major buildings, that most people might not know that George loves to roll up his sleeves and work on houses, his own and other people’s.

He’s a brick layer, carpenter, stone mason, cabinet maker, furniture restorer, roofer, viga hauler, adobe plasterer, tool collector, and designer. He always did all the hard labor at his own homes when he was younger, and still does much of it even now, at 78. But in the last 50 years, residential design has been a small fraction of George’s work, though he’s designed houses and restorations and additions for the likes of painter Wilson and Roz Hurley, Sen. Jack Schmitt and Teresa Fitzgibbon, Dr. Harvey and Jan Yates, attorney Steve and Beth Moise, Dr. Keith and Betty Harvey, Dr. Jerry and Marilyn Betteman, and Jay and Joleen Rembe, to name a few.

Residential design is a little-recognized part of the career of the man for whom the new building of the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning will be named. That honor comes in recognition of not only the some 1,500 projects he’s been a part of since 1950, but also of his tireless leadership in historic preservation in our New Mexico and his mentorship of countless preservation activists, historians, young architects, conservationists, and writers in New Mexico, myself included. All of us consider George our wise guide, philosopher, and friend.

Only now in “retirement” is George designing as many houses as he wants to. And when he thinks of the houses he’s designed, he reveals the secret of his art: “I see the people before I see the house.” For him, the “importance of the individual client” is paramount. Then he adds, “houses are a more strenuous discipline than building for a committee. In architecture, I do like discipline.”

It is within the limitations and constraints of a particular site and of his client’s needs that George thrives as an architect and problem solver, much like a poet does working with the discipline of specific forms. “Left to our own devices, without discipline, it’s a disaster,” George says. There is always “a relationship between discipline and solving a problem elegantly.” That diligence and sense of exploration is one of the reasons why so many of George’s clients become his friends.

“I have done almost no houses for people who have not become special friends,” he says. And it’s easy to understand why. He pays such close attention to what his client/friends want in their homes, he is such a wise listener, such a master of communicating and adapting and inventing, and he knows so much about how to help one know what it is one really wants, that working with him is like working with your best friend, the person you can be perfectly candid with about almost anything.

As he told my wife, Rini, some seven years ago when he’d finished the final designs of an extensive renovation of our old North Valley farm house, “you did it all yourself,” and then he agreed, “but you couldn’t have done it without me.”

George has been among our closest and dearest friends for going on 32 years. Although, like most amateur students of architecture, we’ve long admired his myriad public buildings—from the splendid main library downtown to the elegantly simple and eccentric reservoir at UNM—we never really had a chance to observe how he does what he does until he graciously worked with us some years after his retirement. He had been chief designer for the firm of Stevens, Mallory, Pearl, and Campbell (SMPC) from l953 to l990.

One thing became clear to us right from the start. George’s work has nothing at all to do with him imposing his ego on his clients. As he says, “for most of us architects most of the time, architecture is not an appropriate medium for self-expression.” But, he adds, “when I’m designing for myself, of course, it is an appropriate medium for self-expression.”

When he has worked on his own houses, the discipline is about context, the specific site of the house and where the site is located in a community and its history. When he designs houses for others, it’s all about them, and the precise location of where they’re building.

It’s all in the details. When George worked with Rini in renovating our old house, we came to understand why he is a master. He knew immediately how important the place was to us. It wasn’t 10 feet away from a cherished 150-year-old Valley cottonwood. The house was slightly under 900 square feet and built of terrones around 1915. We’d lived it in for 26 years. And every inch of it had good memories.

We wanted four things. First, to retain everything we loved about the old tin-roofed building; second, to add on rooms and storage space that would honor the old house and protect us from the street; third, to frame, through back windows, the still rural wildlands of our property, beset though it is by new development all around it; and fourth, to cause no harm to the tree. George managed to do all that, and do it so well that out of certain windows, the surrounding infill isn’t visible at all. The most amazing thing George accomplished was preserving the details and feeling of the old house, and all our memories associated with it. At the same time, his design joined to the old place new rooms and work spaces that, though larger and more open, seemed every bit as intimate and personal as the house we loved so much.

He knew us very well after all our years of friendship. But he worked and worked to know us better, and to understand exactly what it was we wanted and exactly how much we could afford, which was a limited amount. And with more information came constant change. With the way George works, “the definition of the problem keeps changing, which, of course, keeps requiring different solutions,” he says.

George revises continually, redraws by hand, rethinks, adapts, and starts over with every new piece of important knowledge gleaned from client/friends. And by the time he’s through, he’s become an instrument for the fulfillment of their highly individualized needs and sensibilities. Nothing is preconceived. He has no abstract aesthetic principles he’s trying to impose, he has no formulas, no off-the-rack solutions. He wants your house to be yours and to be respectful of the context of its site.

Having lived in and renovated houses in Corrales, Tomé, and downtown Albuquerque, George understands that almost any kind of housing, from “manufactured homes” to subdivision formula houses, can be modified and adapted to more specifically fit the individual needs of the owner. It all has to do with having the skills and the desire to do it, though he admits that as materials become more and more sophisticated the harder it becomes. “When the responsiveness of wood is replaced by the unresponsiveness of metals and plastics, one’s participation in individualizing where one lives becomes less and less,” he says.

“But,” he adds, “if the builder anticipated the wish of the owner to do things to his house, it would have been easy to provide for that possibility by leaving some of the houses in a tract unfinished, giving the occupant a chance to earn a sense of ownership by doing something for himself.”

All over the north and south valleys from Bernalillo to Belen, manufactured mobile homes, he said, are “embellished, sprouting additions and porches in every direction,” or being used as the core structures around which to make much larger buildings when finances and time allow.

“One does not have to be rich to do this, by no means. I feel sorry for people on the golf course,” George smiles, “when they could be having so much more fun building something on their house and getting more exercise.”

“Building something for yourself for recreation is one of our most important abandoned potentials” as modern Americans, he says. “It gives us a chance to improve on our immediate environments. It’s something our species has done for a very long time, and we’re doing it less and less now.”

For most subdivisions, George admits that “the owner’s best chance of participation in his own environment is in the exterior,” in landscape, building walkways, places to sit or do various kinds of work, planting trees and crops and flowers.

When George becomes his own “client,” if you will, he pays equally close attention to his own sense of what pleases him as he does with his friends and their houses. George lives on Twelfth Street in a beautifully simple National Register brick cottage called The J.H. Coons House, built in 1884, four years after the railroad arrived. The Coons house, according to preservation historian Susan Dewitt in her classic book Historic Albuquerque Today, sits “on a sandstone foundation and is constructed of soft local brick in a size markedly larger than standard modern brick.” George’s restoration and additions to the house follow in the footsteps of Mr. Coons himself, an insurance executive who “enriched [the house] with his avocational skills as a carpenter.”

George has added a woodworking shop and storage area, a garage, and a small greenhouse at the back of the double-gabled brick house in such a way that they flow naturally from the old building and match its wonderful dark red color. And, of course, brick is used everywhere as a paving material and to construct walls and raised beds for vegetables and arbors. His interior office space and design studio seem utterly true to both themselves and to the context of the brick cottage. Nothing is out of place. It’s that astonishing combination of innovation, problem solving invention, and profound sensitivity to context, both its constraints and its potentialities, that has made George Pearl’s life as an architect such a powerful model of inspired care and respectful imagination for so many of us.

V.B. Price is a writer and teacher and former editor of New Mexico Magazine.