By Max Grossman, Ph.D, Vice-Chair, El Paso County Historical Commission.
In spring 2009 I flew to El Paso, Texas, to interview for an entry-level professorship at the University of Texas. As an architectural historian, I was curious about the historic core of El Paso, whose origins could be traced back to the Spanish colonial period, and my hosts were more than happy to oblige. During our walk around San Jacinto Plaza and along El Paso Street, I was amazed at the quality and beauty of the commercial architecture, most of which dates to the first decades of the 20th century when El Paso rapidly transformed from a rough and dusty frontier town into a major metropolitan center of industry and commerce. I was struck, however, by the great number of abandoned and neglected buildings. Despite their incredible potential, it was apparent that these historic structures, which had been built of the finest materials and embellished with ornate cornices and moldings, could not survive in this condition for long before they would have to be demolished out of necessity.
Only two months after moving to El Paso and starting my new academic career, I began attending El Paso County Historical Commission meetings. The county appointed me a commissioner, and I soon formed an Architectural Preservation Committee consisting of professionals with expertise in architecture, planning, history, and statutory law. We began a conversation about historic preservation and turned our attention to the municipal code that regulates the demolition and modification of buildings in El Paso’s local Downtown Historic District, which includes several properties on the National Register of Historic Places. We quickly realized that the code—poorly written and riddled with loopholes and redundancies—offered little protection for even the city’s most significant architecture. By contrast, other Texas cities, like San Antonio and Galveston, had laws and strategies in place that encouraged the restoration of hundreds of downtown buildings, and their tourism was booming as a result.
As we pondered why El Paso had thus far failed to capitalize on its precious architectural assets, we were faced with a series of crises. In April 2012 the First National Bank Building—a 131-year-old monument that had been on the National Register but had long been neglected by the real estate conglomerate that owned it—burned to the ground in a devastating fire.
Soon thereafter, a local real estate investment trust sought to acquire the beautiful and historic John T. Muir Building—designed by Henry C. Trost and erected between 1914 and 1916—with the aim of demolishing it. In spite of the vigorous efforts of the El Paso County Historical Commission, the city council ultimately overruled the Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) to authorize demolition without so much as asking what would replace the century-old building. More than three years later, the current lot still stands empty, a gaping crater in our urban fabric.
Only weeks later, the same conglomerate that had owned the First National Bank applied to raze the 1914 Union Bank & Trust Building next door, arguing that the structure had been damaged beyond repair despite the fact that its exterior had survived the fire almost completely intact. Again the HLC rejected the demolition permit, and again the city council overruled it. The same firm quietly demolished the Gem Theatre, a beautiful three-story brick structure built circa 1885 that boasted a long and fascinating history but lay just outside the historic district. The disappearance of the contiguous First National Bank Building, Union Bank and Trust Building, and Gem Theatre left behind a vacant lot that remains to this very day. The firm would go on to raze more than half a city block, leveling five buildings that had been erected between 1896 and 1910 and replacing them with yet another empty dirt lot.
Thankfully, the sudden destruction of so much historic building stock caused a public outcry, which enabled us to build support for architectural preservation. Our new clout was put to the test in March 2014, when the city’s fire marshal declared the historic 1902 Gateway Hotel an “imminent danger” and forcibly evacuated all 42 residents. The El Paso County Historical Commission, Texas Trost Society, and television media showed up at the meeting that would decide the fate of the building. Our impassioned defense won the owners time to rehabilitate the structure. This was our first victory and the first time in modern memory that the El Paso public had been able to halt the demolition of a major historic building.
A Plan for Downtown Renewal
Between April 2012 and June 2014, El Paso lost nine historic buildings in the heart of downtown, eight of which had been owned by a single company. In fall 2014, my Architectural Preservation Committee devised a plan to halt the destruction. Following the lead of other major Texas cities, we proposed conducting a comprehensive survey of downtown El Paso that would include not only the large commercial buildings but also the Hispanic areas south of downtown, Segundo Barrio and Chihuahuita, which had been neglected for decades and almost entirely excluded from preservation efforts.
Next, we planned to nominate downtown El Paso for the National Register of Historic Places, creating a new national historic district. Owners of “contributing properties” within the new district would not be subject to any new regulations unless they applied for historic federal and state credits, which could pay for up to 45 percent of renovation costs. We had seen investors in other Texas cities with such districts restore historic properties with astounding results, so we felt that our pro-business plan would easily pass muster.
Confident that the surest path to success was through the city, we took our proposal to the historic preservation officer to determine the survey boundaries and apply for grant money to cover the projected $120,000 cost. She succeeded in securing $56,000 from the Texas Historical Commission and $15,000 from the Summerlee Foundation. We met with the mayor, city manager, and city council and took our plan to the media, which enthusiastically publicized its potential economic benefits. We reached out to building owners and real estate companies and won the support of almost everyone we engaged. By the time our plan was ready to be presented to the city council, we were certain that we had broad support.
However, a small but influential group of investors opposed our plan and, with the assistance of the city manager, twice succeeded in removing it from the city council agenda. Eventually, in no small part because of media pressure, the city government felt compelled to bring the matter to a vote in July 2015. After a marathon meeting that included both the mayor and city manager, the city council representative of downtown unexpectedly opposed our plan, claiming that it would subject building owners to onerous and expensive regulations. She vigorously urged the council to vote against it and successfully saw to its 6-2 defeat.
Success Through Plan B
Rather than abandon our effort, we immediately regrouped and activated our backup plan: El Paso County. Since there was no particular reason why the city had to be the initiator of the survey and historic district nomination, the county stepped up to the plate and expedited our project. Within weeks we had not only unanimous support from the county judge and commissioners but also full funding and even the endorsement of key developers. Our plan was brought before the County Commissioners Court on February 8, 2016.
Courtesy of Preservation Leadership Forum.