A guide to El Paso’s architectural history
Winston Churchill once remarked, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” In El Paso, the buildings that help set the stages of our lives contain their own special histories and reflect the complex local culture of the borderlands. From 350-year-old adobe structures to the futuristic geometry of art deco, the region boasts beautiful and fascinating local architecture.
“By and large, El Paso is one of the most distinctive, architecturally diverse cities in the southwest,” said Troy Ainsworth, a historic preservation specialist for the city of Las Cruces and former historic preservation officer for the city of El Paso.
Within Downtown El Paso, even the layout of the streets and lot shapes carry visual markers of that history, said Daniela Quesada, chief architect of the city of El Paso. Many of the oddly shaped buildings and abruptly shifted street patterns resulted from the superimposition of a second city grid in the late 1800s upon the original city layout.
Quesada said the eclecticism of El Paso’s architectural history is noteworthy.
“That’s actually what makes it incredibly unique,” she said. “It has had commercial activity for so long and there has been adaptive reuse of the existing built environment, (so) there’s been appropriations from different eras of the architecture into new aesthetics.”
In this guide, El Paso Matters will walk through the primary stylistic shifts that have characterized El Paso architectural history, highlighting some significant turning points and noteworthy buildings along the way. Within the greater El Paso area, there are hundreds of years of fascinating architectural history on display — one just has to know where to look.
The adobe buildings of early El Paso
Adobe is among the oldest building materials used by humans, and has been used by Indigenous people of the Southwest for thousands of years. It is especially durable in dry, warm climates like that of El Paso, making adobe an ideal building material for the region.
“Before (the introduction of the railroad in) 1881, practically every (structure) that was built in El Paso and Juárez was made of adobe,” said David Dorado Romo in an interview with El Paso Matters. Romo is an El Paso historian who discussed the history of El Paso’s adobe buildings in his book “Ringside Seat to a Revolution.”
“That was the most ecologically sustainable material: it remained cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It was easy for anyone to build, rich or poor,” Romo said.
The Mission of Guadalupe in Juárez is among the oldest standing structures in the region, built in the 1660s. The original adobe building is now connected to the Ciudad Juárez Cathedral, which was constructed in the early 1940s.
But with a rapidly growing Anglo-American population in El Paso linked to the construction of railroad in 1880, anti-Mexican and anti-Indigenous prejudice led to widespread demolition of adobe buildings, Romo said.
“(Adobe was) seen as a backwards material, a dirty material, a Mexican material,” Romo said. “And you have these campaigns almost immediately to replace adobe.”
In his book, Romo cited an 1883 El Paso Times article that described local Anglo-American architectural attitudes of the time. “The removal of the ancient adobe with all their bad associations means a new life for El Paso,” the article said.
Thereafter, the built landscape of El Paso was swiftly transformed, first with wood then followed by brick buildings becoming commonplace, Romo said.
“City Beautiful Movement” reaches El Paso
The turn of the century marked a period of dramatic change for El Paso architecture as Anglo-Americans became dominant in local politics and development initiatives. El Paso began to be home to more neoclassical buildings, an architectural style that was widely used throughout the United States in the 19th century as a way to establish an ideological linkage to the ancient Greek and Roman democracies. Gleaming Greek columns and romanesque flourishes can be seen on El Paso buildings like the Downtown Post Office.
The City Beautiful Movement — an urban planning approach that emerged from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago — left a strong imprint upon El Paso architecture, Quesada said.
“There was a real drive for cities to become beautiful spaces because there was a belief that beautiful spaces would bring out the best in people,” Quesada said.
The movement’s ideas of what architectural elements were considered “beautiful” largely drew from Western European architecture of the preceding decades. They include the Beaux-Arts style, which was also linked to ancient Greek and Roman forms, but more highly ornamented than the neoclassical style. El Paso’s Hotel Paso del Norte, built in 1912 by Trost & Trost, is an example of the Beaux-Arts style.
Henry C. Trost, and the architectural firm he ran with his brothers Gustavus and Adolphus, had a tremendous impact on El Paso architecture in the early 20th century. Over the course of 30 years, Trost & Trost created numerous commercial and residential buildings in El Paso in wildly varying styles. Trost buildings ranged from the Bhutanese-inspired campus of the University of Texas at El Paso, to the prairie style design of Trost’s El Paso home, to Chicago-style Art Deco in the Bassett Tower of Downtown El Paso.
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El Paso becomes a hub for art deco design
El Paso was included in the art deco design trend that swept through the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Many notable Downtown buildings, such as the Kress Building and the Plaza Hotel, bear markers of vivid art deco aesthetics, which are characterized by bright color, vertical lines and dramatic geometric ornamentation.
“(Art deco style) was supposed to signify progress, and that’s where the idea of a real abstraction started to come in,” Quesada said, noting how rapidly society was changing at the time, with art deco aesthetics influencing interior design and flapper fashion trends of the time. “Being a part of future thinking, letting go of the old traditional ways (characterized art deco).”
The increasing popularity of art deco in architecture connected to changing norms in the visual arts — the rise in abstraction, modernism and cubism reflected the idealization of new technology, machine power and faster transportation.
Mid-century modern aesthetics in El Paso
The move to project a changing and more “modern” society through architecture continued into the middle of the 20th century, with aesthetics becoming increasingly minimal and architects abandoning ornamentation in favor of stark lines and sleek shapes.
In El Paso, a population boom in the 1950s and 1960s meant new developments started being built outward from the city center. These new residential communities often took on visual signifiers of mid-century design, with architects Robert Garland and David Hilles creating lauded mid-century El Paso homes.
Other notable mid-century modern buildings in El Paso include the Downtown Public Library and the Jewish Temple Mount Sinai, which was described by Rabbi Floyd S. Fierman as a “contemporary” house of worship in a dedication to the building he penned in 1962.
“While there are no portraits or images on its walls … its designer has moved from Greek classical lines to a creative use of sculptured cement and other modern materials to make the edifice harmonious with the present,” Fierman wrote.
In Downtown El Paso, mid-century aesthetics were also applied to older buildings through the use of false facades, Quesada said.
“That happened a lot, so you’ll see a lot of these funky rectilinear facades … applied in the ’50s and ’60s when everyone was trying to move away from the Beaux Arts, Classical revival aesthetic, (to) project a more modern aesthetic,” she said, pointing to the former Downtown J.C. Penney building as an example. The mid-century facade applied to the building was recently removed to reveal the original 91-year-old brick facade underneath.
Quesada said it’s easy to spot the buildings with false facades Downtown by looking at them from the side, because often they’ll be brick with older and more ornate design elements, contrasting with a different material and simpler style on the front.
Contemporary El Paso architecture and debates over historic preservation
As El Paso’s population continued to grow over the latter half of the 20th century, the city’s newer developments have dramatically expanded the architectural footprint of the region.
Contemporary architecture is characterized by a mixing of disparate styles, open floor plans and mixed materials.
Quesada said the remodeled interior of the Trost-designed Anson Mills Building Downtown provides a good example of contemporary architectural aesthetics because it integrates the building’s original design elements and brick walls while applying contemporary finishes as part of a multi-use retail and office complex. Building owner and billionaire developer Paul Foster is also overseeing the remodeling of several other historic Downtown buildings.
But the aims of developers and historic preservationists have come into conflict over El Paso’s Downtown architecture, particularly in the case of buildings in the Duranguito neighborhood.
Romo is among a group of vocal opponents of plans to build an arena in the historic El Paso neighborhood. The project would displace residents and raze buildings that should be preserved, he said. Romo noted the Glass Beach Study, a 2006 marketing study commissioned by the city of El Paso, as an example of the way that prejudice can be baked into local development efforts, harming the city’s most vulnerable residents. A powerpoint for the study included a slide about El Paso’s “personality imagery” that contained a photo of an older Mexican man and a bulleted list of descriptors including “dirty, lazy, speak Spanish, uneducated.”
“All buildings are examples of power,” Romo said. “So when you have an arena it’s not a neutral building. There are people that are going to profit from the arena, (and there are) people who are going to be displaced by the arena.”
In a November City Council meeting, the council voted to move toward resolving long-standing legal battles related to the arena, and to prioritize historic preservation.
Ainsworth said the first step to preserving El Paso architecture is to simply “look at what is right in front of you.”
“That’s the value of looking at buildings because then you start to appreciate them, if you look at the small details, and El Paso features many buildings both in Downtown … and its surrounding residential areas that are distinctive, that are unique, that are worthy of preservation,” he said.
“El Paso has a deeply rich architectural history. I mean, it’s really something else,” Ainsworth said.
Cover photo: A partial view of Downtown El Paso shows the landmark Plaza and Paso del Norte hotels, along with the back of the historic Kress Building in the lower right foreground. The El Paso region showcases a stunning diversity of architectural styles, from adobe to art deco.(Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)