The lowest natural pass in a region of deserts and mountains has been used by humans for thousands of years. The Spanish sent expeditions of missionaries and conquistadores through “El Paso” as early as 1558 but the area remained largely undeveloped during most of the period of Spanish control. It wasn’t until Mexican rule that a community started to form, growing up around the ranch of Juan Maria Ponce de Leon, who acquired a 211-acre land grant on the north side of the Rio Grande River.
El Paso passed through Mexican rule, Texan rule, Confederate rule and American rule with little more effect than a name change in 1859 from Franklin to El Paso. When the town was incorporated in 1873 the population was noted as “23 Anglo-Americans and 150 Mexicans.” The happening town was actually on the other end of the ferry across the Rio Grande in Juarez where the town boasted several thousand people.
What finally kickstarted El Paso out of its existence as a sleepy little collection of adobe huts was the coming of the transcontinental railroad in the early 1880s. The Southern Pacific won the race to the strategic crossing near the Rio Grande in the pass above the town on May 19, 1881 and it was quickly followed by the Santa Fe and Texas and Pacific lines. El Paso boomed and at the same time gained a reputation as a haven for desperadoes, gamblers and gunslingers preying on the new arrivals. But so many people were pouring into El Paso that its colorful days as a lawless frontier town were short-lived. Although prostitution and gambling would thrive until World War I in El Paso, by 1890 the population had swelled to 10,000 and with the coming of the new century the city was entrenched as the leading manufacturing, transportation and retail center of the American Southwest.
One of those newcomers in the first years of the 1900s was Henry Charles Trost. Trost hailed from Ohio where he attended art school and trained as an architectural draftsman. He spent time with celebrated architect Louis Sullivan and his disciple Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago. He worked his way around the West, developing a hankering for the design of the early Spanish missions of Northern Mexico and the American Southwest. Trost arrived in Tucson in 1899 when he was 39 but only stayed a few years before moving on to El Paso. Working with his brother, Trost would become one of the country’s most prolific designers with over 600 buildings to his credit. In El Paso alone, Trost worked on over 200 commissions. Few cities were impacted so dramatically by a single architect as El Paso was by Henry Trost. Many of his most important works still define the El Paso streetscape a century later. We will encounter Trost more than a dozen times on our walking tour of downtown El Paso and we will begin in a ceremonial open space in the shadow of four Trost creations...
San Jacinto Plaza
bounded by Main, Mills and North Oregon streets and North Mesa Avenue
This block of open space is said to be where Mexican explorer Juan de Oñate discovered a cultivated garden in 1598 while claiming all of New Mexico beyond the Rio Grande River for Spain. It housed corrals from the ranch of of Juan Maria Ponce de Leon and U.S. Army troops drilled in the Plaza. The City acquired the land in 1881, cleared the overgrown mesquite, dug a pond in the sandy soil and planted 75 Chinese Elm trees to create a park. The most attention came, however, from three alligators who were introduced to the pond. The pod of toothy reptiles thrived, growing to as many as seven and becoming a leading town attraction until the 1960s when the alligators had to be removed to the El Paso Zoo to protect them from vandals. The pond was filled in and the alligators are remembered today by a fiberglass sculpture.
WALK OVER TO THE EAST SIDE OF THE SQUARE ON THE MESA STREET SIDE.
310 North Mesa Street at northeast corner of Mills Avenue
Looming over San Jacinto Square, this is the third hotel of consequence to stand here, following in the footprint of the Vendome and the Orndoff. It was called the Hotel Orndoff when it opened in 1926 trumpeting its arrival as a “Castle of Old Spain on the Plaza of El Paso.” Architect Henry Trost’s Spanish Colonial Revival design incorporated carved stone heads of conquistadors into the facade, looking out over the Plaza. George Washington never slept here but John Kennedy did, during a Presidential visit to El Paso in June of 1963. An era in El Paso hospitality came to an end shortly thereafter in 1970 and the building was restored and outfitted for office use in 1984.
FACING THE OLD HOTEL CORTEZ TURN RIGHT AND BEGIN WALKING CLOCKWISE AROUND SAN JACINTO PLAZA. GO TO THE SOUTHEAST CORNER AT MILLS AVENUE AND MESA STREET.
215 North Mesa Street at southwest corner of Mills Avenue
William Martin Banner and M.D. Roberts put up the money for this building. The year was 1908 and Henry Trost was experimenting with reinforced concrete. He created this enduring U-shaped tour-de-force; look up above the compromised ground level to see the ornamental string courses between floors, leading up to an exuberant cornice.
CONTINUE TO THE SOUTHWEST CORNER OF THE PLAZA AT OREGON STREET AND MILLS AVENUE.
S.H. Kress Building
100 Mills Avenue at southeast corner of Oregon Street
Samuel Henry Kress looked on his stores as public works of art and he retained a staff of architects to achieve that end. He took as much pride in the appearance of those stores as the nickels and dimes that piled up in his coffers. There would eventually be 264 Kress five-and-dime stores throughout the United States and many of them adopted the Art Deco style in the 1920s and 1930s. The El Paso store was designed in 1938 by company architect, Edward Sibbert. It stayed open as one of the crown jewels in the dime store chain until 1997.
EXIT SAN JACINTO SQUARE ALONG MILLS AVENUE, TRAVELING WEST.
106 Mills Avenue at southwest corner of Oregon Street
The first Hilton hotel was set up by Conrad Hilton in his family’s adobe home in San Antonio, New Mexico in 1907. Business reversals in his father’s general store necessitated the conversion of six of the rooms in the house into quarters for transient lodgers. Hilton, then 19, worked all day in the store and went to the train station at 1:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. to meet the arriving trains and solicit potential guests. Room and board was $2.50 a day. Hilton tackled his first high-rise hotel project here in 1929 on the ashes of the recently destroyed Hotel Sheldon, where partisans of both sides in the Mexican Revolution of the previous decade often gathered. Architect Henry Trost created an Art Deco tower with setbacks that soared to 239 feet, faced in brown brick and topped by a copper pyramid. It was the tallest building in El Paso for 40 years and as the Plaza Hotel since 1963 is still the town’s third tallest building.
303 North Oregon Street at northwest corner of Mills Avenue
In 1855 twenty-year old Anson Mills left the family farm in Indiana for a commission at West Point. Two years later he was dismissed from the Academy for “deficiency in mathematics.” Rather than return home in shame, Mills migrated to Texas where he found work teaching school and then to El Paso where he laid out the street plan for the town while employed as a surveyor. The Civil War revived Mills’ aspiration for a military career and although he served without distinction in the conflict he rose to the rank of Captain and remained in the Army until 1893. During that time Mills, who eventually was appointed brigadier-general, made improvements in the regular issue cartridge belt which made him a fortune when it was adopted by the British Army for use in the Boer War in 1899. Mills used part of his money to finance this 12-story office building in 1910 that was the town’s first skyscraper. Architect Henry Trost adapted the orderly Chicago Commercial Style pioneered by Louis Sullivan for the gently curving high-rise. A leading cheerleader of reinforced concrete as a building material, Trost fashioned only the second concrete-frame skyscraper in the United States for Anson Mills. Trost was pleased enough with the result to move his offices into the building which would stay in the Mills family until 1965. By the way, this is the location of the historic Ponce de Leon ranch house.
White House Department Store/Centre Building
123 Pioneer Plaza
Henry Trost continued his architectural taming of the bend in Mills Avenue, a souvenir from a long-ago irrigation canal, with another gracefully turning structure, begun in 1912 for the White House Department Store. French immigrant Felix Brunschwig established the retail business in Jaurez in 1880 as the “City of London.” By 1900 Brucshwig had switched his bets to El Paso and started the White House at the corner of San Antonio and Oregon streets. In 1908 two nephews, Gaston and Myrtil Coblentz, took over the specialty store with an eye for expansion. At this location they operated at first with only a basement for stock, a selling floor and a mezzanine. In 1917 the White House added three more floors, blossoming into a full-service department store. A decade later the brothers were selling from space in the Mils Building and had invested $120,000 into what was billed as the longest single-span escalator in the United States. The Original White House, after watching downtown shoppers defect to suburban malls, closed in 1977 and the building trundles on as office space.
125 Pioneer Plaza
As he announced in the El Paso Times in 1927, Louis L. Dent wanted to give something back to the city that “has been good to me.” What he planned was the “Greatest Showplace in the Southwest” that would make El Pasoans proud. Architect W. Scott Dunne made Dent’s dream a reality with this Spanish Colonial Revival theater. On opening night September 12, 1930 every one of the 2,410 seats was filled - the largest of the downtown theaters - for a screening of Follow Through. The Mighty Wurlizter Organ, boasting 15 ranks with 61 pipes in each rank, that elevated from the orchestra pit to accompany stage acts and entertain patrons before and after the movies came with a price tag of $60,000 by itself. A highlight at the Plaza occurred in 1949 when it hosted the world premiere of the feature El Paso, with the most famous of Western sidekicks, Gabby Hayes, supporting John Payne. The Plaza went dark in 1974 but dodged the wrecking ball long enough to receive a $38 million makeover in 2006.
southeast corner of Mills Avenue and El Paso Street
Although small and engulfed by tall buildings in the 20th century, this plaza was the pulsing heart of El Paso civic life in the 1800s. The Army posted guards here to dissuade Apache Indian attacks and the major trails of the West were routed through the plaza. If you were making the journey to Mexico or the long trek west to San Francisco, you passed Pioneer Plaza. While here you probably checked out a cottonwood tree stood where El Paso Street enters Pioneer Plaza that served as the town’s bulletin board where notices were posted. The stump of the “Notice Tree” was preserved by county officials after it was removed. The statue gracing the plaza is that of Frey Garcia, the Franciscan priest who established the Manso Indian Mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the Pass of the North in 1659 that started European settlement on this stretch of the Rio Grande River; his original mission still survives in downtown Juarez.
TURN RIGHT ON SHELDON COURT.
El Paso Museum of Art
1 Arts Festival Plaza
Founded in 1959, the El Paso Museum of Art is the only accredited art museum within a 250-mile radius. The collection moved into this space in 1998. Included in the museum’s holdings are 57 works from the Samuel H. Kress collection (of the five-and-dime chain seen earlier) that features Italian Renaissance and European masters and is spread around 18 American museums.
TURN LEFT ON SANTA FE STREET.
Abraham Chavez Theatre
northeast corner of Santa Fe Street and San Antonio Avenue
This stretch of Santa Fe street has evolved into the cultural artery with the art museum, the science museum, the museum of history, the convention center and City Hall, which is slated to be imploded to make room for a new minor league baseball facility. The sombrero-shaped Abraham Chavez Theater welcomes patrons to the performance space with a three-story high glass windowed entry.
TURN LEFT ON OVERLAND AVENUE.
Merrick Building/St. Charles Hotel
301 South El Paso Street at southwest corner of Overland Avenue
William J. Carpenter was born in England in 1864 and apprenticed as a draftsman before sailing to Baltimore in 1880, declaring himself an “architect” as a 16-year old in the 1880 census. In 1885 he made his way to El Paso where he teamed with John J. Stewart who had been an architect in town since 1881. This eclectic three-story Victorian stone and brick building from 1887 was one of only two projects attributed to the partnership before Carpenter moved on to Spokane, Washington. The building was owned by Charles Merrick who sold men’s clothing and hats on the first floor. The two upstairs floors were taken by the St. Charles Hotel around 1890 and it became the longest running guest house in El Paso before shuttering in 1996.
TURN LEFT ON EL PASO STREET.
209 South El Paso Street
The Palace began life in 1914 as the Alhambra Theatre. Henry Trost provided the festive facade, blending Moorish Revival influences with an infusion of Spanish Colonial style. While the eye-catching front remains its days as a stage and movie house have ended; its latest incarnation has been as a nightclub.
216-218 South El Paso Street
This building dates to 1882, only one year after the railroad arrived in El Paso and the town began to tear down adobe buildings and replace them with lumber and brick structures. William J. Montgomery raised his building on a vacant lot in between two existing structures so he just constructed a floor, a roof and a central wall to create two new addresses. In the fashion of the day, to make his property more impressive he built up a false front and cornice. Today the Montgomery Building is the last false front structure in El Paso and the city’s oldest commercial building. The modern renovations obscure the wooden storefront at ground level but you can look up to see the pioneer-days false front.
Hotel Paso del Norte
115 El Paso Street at northwest corner of San Antonio Avenue
Zack T. White, a Virginia native, did more to build pioneer El Paso than anyone else. He operated the first brick plant in El Paso and was in on the construction of the first Santa Fe Street International Bridge and the first streetcar line. White was one of the state’s earliest cheerleaders for the development of electricity and gas. One thing he wanted to do with those modern conveniences was build the finest hotel in the Southwest and he had $1.5 million to make it happen. But before groundbreaking would take place in 1910 White and architect Henry Charles Trost visited San Francisco to study buildings that survived the Great Earthquake of 1906. Trost then built not only the sturdiest high-rise in El Paso but one of the most striking visually. The Beaux Arts splendor on the outside is matched by an ornate interior highlighted by 25-foot stained glass dome designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The Hotel Paso del Norte remained in the White family until 1971 and still functions as a hotel after 100 years, picking up a 17-story addition in 1986 and operating as a Camino Real Hotel.
TURN RIGHT ON SAN ANTONIO AVENUE.
Union Bank and Trust Building
104 East San Antonio Avenue
This Neoclassical vault came from the drawing board of Henry Charles Trost who was as adept with ancient Grecian and Roman balustrades and cornices as he was with Southwestern design tropes. Look above the battered lower floors to see the beautifully proportioned classical elements created for the Union Bank and Trust. The building sustained structural damage during an April 2012 fire that destroyed the 1880s French Second Empire First National Bank on the corner and its life hangs in the balance. The First National Bank Building had briefly contained the law office of gunslinger John Wesley Hardin. Harden was gunned down on August 19, 1895 in the Acme Saloon that was at the end of the next block at Mesa Street.
First Mortgage Company Building /1 Texas Tower
109 Oregon Street at northwest corner of San Antonio Avenue
Dallas architects Charles Erwin Barglebaugh and Lloyd R. Whitson came to town in 1920 to design El Paso’s tallest building. Soaring 15 stories high, the Renaissance Revival tower remained El Paso’s Sky King for a decade. The exterior is sheathed in desert-colored buff brick and trimmed in tan terra cotta.
State National Bank
114 East San Antonio Avenue at southwest corner of Oregon Street
Henry Trost tapped the Second Renaissance Revival style for this banking temple that was constructed in 1921-1922 for the State National Bank. The composition is dominated by an arcade of double-story arched windows along Oregon Street and a mammoth arched doorway on the main San Antonio Avenue entrance. A balustrade crowns the terra cotta-clad structure. The State took its first deposits in 1881, came here after 41 years and stayed 40 years. It has since been converted to retail space.
300 East San Antonio Avenue at southeast corner of Mesa Street
This Henry Trost-designed building began as a standard Chicago Commercial Style property for former El Paso mayor Richard Caples in 1909. In 1915 Trost was hired again to add two more stories and he reached back three decades in his design playbook to retrieve a Romanesque Revival style for the addition. This was El Paso’s first structure raised with reinforced concrete, Trost’s go-to building material in the coming decade. In 1911 Francisco Madero announced to the world that offices 507 and 508 would henceforth be the International Headquarters of the Mexican Revolution and provisional Chichuahua Governor Abraham Gonzalez would be conducting business in the Caples Buidling. Noted insurrectionists like Giuseppe Garibaldi were entertained here, leaders recruited and battles plotted.
Popular Dry Goods Company
102 North Mesa Street at northeast corner of San Antonio Avenue
Hungarian immigrant Adolph Schwartz founded what would become El Paso’s largest locally owned retail operation in 1902. Schwartz began his career in Juarez in 1887, selling goods in the Mexican Free Trade Zone. When the Mexican government clamped down on free trade, Schwartz closed his operation and came to El Paso. The Popular proved to be just that, with Americans, Mexicans and leaders from both sides of the Mexican Revolution. The store moved into the ground floor of the Masonic Lodge located here in 1912 and in 1917 Henry Trost was called in to create this full-blown department store. It reigned in El Paso until 1995.
TURN LEFT ON MESA STREET.
Rio Grande Valley Bank and Trust/Abdou Building
115 North Mesa State at southwest corner of Texas Avenue
This early effort from Henry Trost demonstrates the convention followed by early high-rise designers to raise their structures in the image of a classical column with a defined base (the oversized ground floors), shaft (the relatively unadorned central floors) and the capital (the decorated top floors and cornice). The client was the Rio Grande Valley Bank and Trust which sold the property to Syrian entrepreneur Sam N. Abdou in 1925.
TURN RIGHT ON TEXAS AVENUE.
Singer Sewing Company Building
211 Texas Avenue
The versatile Henry Trost wedded Spanish Colonial Revival and Mediterranean influences for this two-story structure of poured concrete in 1928. You can still look up and see the crest of the Isaac M. Singer Sewing Machine Company. Singer did not invent the sewing machine but he made the improvement of having the needle move up and down that rendered the contraption reliable in 1851.
201-205 North Stanton Street at northwest corner of Texas Avenue
John Josiah Newberry jumped into the five-and-dime variety store wars in 1911 in Stroudsburg, a small town in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. Dodging more established nickel-and-dimers like Woolworth’s and S.H. Kress, the family-run Newberry’s concentrated on smaller towns and by the time of the founder’s death in 1954 the chain boasted 475 stores. J.J. Newberry staggered into the 21st century, with the last store closing in 2001. Newberry’s was the most noteworthy tenant of this building, another Henry Trost commercial structure featuring a rounded corner. The steel frame structure clad in concrete was erected in 1911 for the Calisher’s Dry Goods Company.
O.T. Bassett Tower
301 Texas Avenue at northeast corner of Stanton Street
Henry Trost began designing buildings in the Victorian Age and left in the age of Art Deco, executing the town’s best example of the style in 1930. Dressed in a golden brick veneer and infused with Spanish Colonial influences executed in terra cotta, cast stone, marble, and granite, the tower was constructed for Charles Nebeker Bassett as a memorial to his father Oscar T. Basset. The elder Bassett was orphaned in Vermont at an early age and found his way to Fort Worth where he started a lumber business in 1879. The next year he was in El Paso buying real estate for the Texas and Pacific Railway and wound up owning a chunk of the town’s first bank, the First National Bank of El Paso. He dabbled in El Paso politics and stretched his banking interests from Oklahoma to Los Angeles before he died at the age of 47. Trost massed the 15-story tower with slender sections and setbacks at the top to emphasize its verticality; look up to see the eagles standing guard from their perches around the pyramidal roof.
First National Bank Plaza/Wells Fargo Plaza
221 North Kansas Street between Texas and Mills avenues
This Brutalist rectangle has been the tallest building in El Paso since its completion in 1972. The expression of modern architecture takes its name not from its severe presentation but rather from the French béton brut, or “raw concrete” that was the building material often used to express the style, but not here.
TURN RIGHT ON KANSAS STREET. TURN LEFT ON MYRTLE AVENUE.
United States Court House
511 East San Antonio Avenue between Stanton and Kansas streets
The federal government amped up its presence in El Paso during the Great Depression of the 1930s with this block-swallowing house of justice. Local architects Percy McGhee and Guy L. Fraser teamed with Thomas P. Lippencott of Philadelphia to produce an Art Decoish structure of muted classicism simpatico of the times. Crafted of limestone and terra cotta ornament, the crisp exterior is essentially unchanged since its completion in 1936.
Immaculate Conception Church
118 North Campbell Street at southeast corner of Myrtle Avenue
The first Catholic church in El Paso was a small stone meetinghouse raised at Oregon and Wyoming streets in 1882. The Immaculate Conception Church celebrated its first services here in 1893; the parish was founded by Jesuit Father Carlos Pinto who earned the sobriquet “the apostle of El Paso” for the number of congregations he set up in the city while circuit-riding priests were still serving the region’s rural Catholics. In 1914 Pope Pius X established the Diocese of El Paso, which covered 65,000 square miles of West Texas and southern New Mexico.
TURN LEFT ON CAMPBELL STREET.
El Paso Times
300 North Campbell Street at northeast corner of Mills Avenue
The first issues of the El Paso Times hit the streets the same year the railroads arrived - 1881. It began as a weekly paper but within a year was published daily and has been ever since. If all goes as planned the Times plant will become City Hall when the current government home is razed in favor of a new minor league baseball park.
TURN LEFT ON MILLS AVENUE.
215 North Stanton Street at southwest corner of Mills Avenue
Henry Charles Trost did not get every commission in town; this seven-story, Chicago Style office building came from the shop of Braunton & Seibert in 1917. Listen to Hugh Braunton, a native of Iowa and long-time architect in California, from a 1914 interview describing how he happened to be in El Paso: “After looking over a considerable portion of the United States I have decided that we want to make El Paso our permanent home. This is not only the liveliest town I have struck since leaving Vancouver, Canada (where he worked for four years), but its climate is magnificent and the town’s possibilities place it at the head of American opportunities.” The money men on this project were M.D. Roberts and William Martin Banner.
United States Post Office
219 Mills Avenue at northwest corner of Stanton Street
The monumental Beaux Arts design of this sandstone and concrete ashlar building stamps this as a federal project. It was built in 1917 as a post office and it is still fulfilling that mission nearly a century later. Dominated by a sextet of fluted Ionic columns at the main entrance on Mills Avenue, the plans came from the office of James Alphonso Wetmore, Acting Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department.
CONTINUE ONE MORE BLOCK ON MILLS AVENUE TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT SAN JACINTO SQUARE.