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Architecture, art and history all meld in El Paso

Street scene downtown El Paso with (from left) Roberts-Banner Building (designed by Trost   Trost) Kress Building (center) PlazHotel

Street scene in downtown El Paso, with (from left) the Roberts-Banner Building (designed by Trost & Trost), the Kress Building (center) and the Plaza Hotel (the copper pyramid roof), another Trost design. For travel story July 15, 2012. (Photo courtesy El Paso Convention & Visitors Bureau)

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IF YOU GO

Transportation: American, United/Delta, Southwest and U.S. Airways serve El Paso, most via connecting flights.

Lodging: The Doubletree (formerly the International, where Elvis Presley once stayed), 600 N. El Paso, and the Camino Real, offer discount rates for festival patrons.

Info: City of El Paso, www.elpasotexas.gov; El Paso Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.visitelpaso.com

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Updated: August 16, 2012 6:12AM



A city that has inspired musical valentines from such artistic opposites as a country-music icon and emo rockers demands respect.

In “El Paso,” Marty Robbins sang of a local senorita who stole his heart, and Taking Back Sunday salutes the city’s pioneering spirit in another “El Paso.” The charms of the west Texas city, however, seem largely unappreciated outside the Southwest. When I tell friends that El Paso has become my favorite summer vacation spot, they react as if a saguaro cactus had just sprouted from my cranium. It’s so hot there, they’ll reply. Maybe, but it’s that wonderfully dry desert heat, with an average 27 percent humidity during the day. Or it’s dangerous, they’ll insist. Actually, no. El Paso just came in first in a list of U.S. cities (over 500,000) with the lowest crime rates.

Nestled on the Rio Grande, abutting Mexico and New Mexico, it’s a border city like no other. The diverse community reflects a true melting pot of anglo-American, Mexican, Native American — and Texan — cultures. A journey down El Paso Street, the city’s first and oldest thoroughfare, leads from downtown El Paso to its Mexican sister city of Ciudad Juarez.

Full of architectural treasures, the downtown district includes almost two dozen buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Lawyer turned outlaw John Wesley Hardin, the West’s “most feared gunman,” kept an office in the First National Bank Building, in between killing 26 victims, and was shot dead himself while rolling dice at the Acme Saloon on Aug. 19, 1895. His last words: “Brown, you have four sixes to beat.”

On these downtown streets, Old West legends Wyatt Earp, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid once roamed, and in these historic structures, leaders of the Mexican Revolution (including Francisco Madero, Pascual Orozco and Francisco “Pancho” Villa) once took refuge. In more recent decades, the downtown’s historic San Jacinto Plaza housed live alligators, while just a block away, Hollywood’s quintessential star, Liz Taylor, whiled away the hours in a Hilton penthouse.

Actually, old Hollywood is what first lured me to El Paso. The Plaza Classic Film Festival, now in its fifth year and presented by the El Paso Community Foundation, celebrates the golden age of cinema. Among the films and stars booked for this year’s festival (Aug. 2-12): Eva Marie Saint with “North by Northwest” (1959) and “On the Waterfront” (1954), Tippi Hedren with “The Birds” (1963) and “Marnie” (1964) and Mary Badham with “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962). Plus, there’s a gala fund-raiser with cinema icon Al Pacino. (For details, go to www.plazaclassic.com.)

The festival was launched to preserve the legacy of the Plaza Theatre, once billed as “The Showcase of the Southwest.” Built in 1930, the Spanish Colonial Revival movie palace was almost demolished for a parking lot until community leaders came to the rescue. In 2002, the city and the EPCF took over the Plaza and restored it in 2006 as a performing arts center.

Many of the downtown’s historic buildings were designed by El Paso-based firm of Trost & Trost. A former Chicagoan and onetime draftsman for Adler & Sullivan, Henry C. Trost eventually put his architectural stamp on the Southwest.

Between festival screenings, I’ve marveled at the following structures, all designed by Trost & Trost (except where noted) and all on the National Register of Historic Places (save for the S.H. Kress Building):

Caples Building, 300 E. San Antonio: The Romanesque Revival brick/terra-cotta structure housed the provisional government of Mexican president Francisco Madero in 1910-11, from which he plotted the pivotal Battle of Juarez. Now mostly vacant, it still commands attention.

Hotel Cortez, 300 N. Mesa: Billed as “A Castle of Old Spain on the Plaza of El Paso,” the 1926 Spanish Colonial Revival Style structure checked out of the lodging business in 1970 and is now an office building.

Hotel Paso del Norte, 115 S. El Paso: This Beaux Arts/Chicago Style structure (now the Camino Real) celebrates its centennial this year. A 25-foot Tiffany dome graces the lobby, and from the rooftop, patrons once witnessed revolutionary-era skirmishes.

Kress Building, 100 E. Mills: Perhaps the funkiest building downtown, this former 5-and-10 store opened in 1938 and was designed by company architect Edward Sibbert (who regarded it as his favorite in the national chain). Dilapidated and threatened with receivership, this beauty once racked up the chain’s highest annual sales tally.

Plaza Hotel, 106 W. Mills: Built in 1930 on the site of the historic Sheldon Hotel (unofficial headquarters for Mexican Revolution partisans), the 19-story Art Deco brick/concrete tower with a copper pyramid roof was the first Hilton high-rise hotel. This architectural gem once housed the future Miss White Diamonds herself, Liz Taylor, who lived in the penthouse during her brief 1950-51 marriage to Hilton heir Nicky. Renamed the Plaza in 1963, the hotel closed in 1991, but reportedly will undergo renovation.

Popular Department Store, 102 N. Mesa: Once the flagship of El Paso’s largest locally owned department-store chain, this Chicago Style 1912 structure is clad in glistening white terra cotta. The chain went out of business in 1995 (in part due to NAFTA — damn gringos!), but the building now houses a Fallas Paredes discount-clothing store.

Roberts-Banner Building, 114-120 E. Mills: Nature-themed motifs grace the facade of this 1910 structure, reportedly the first built entirely of reinforced concrete.

Union Depot, Coldwell at San Francisco: Just west of downtown stands this Classical Revival masterpiece, built in 1905-06 and designed by a god of modern architecture, Daniel Burnham. Now an Amtrak station, it was restored to its original splendor in 1982.

And that’s just for starters. For more downtown attractions, check these sites: www.elpasotexas.gov, www.visitelpaso.com and www.elpasowalkingtours.com.

Sadly, the 1883 First National Bank Building, where John Wesley Hardin once tackled torts, burned down in April. But there’s still lots to see in El Paso — and even more to see at the Plaza Classsic Film Festival, so saddle up and mosey on down.

P.S: The saguaro, symbol of the Old Paso brand, isn’t native to El Paso. That’s its loss.



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