The fight over the fate of the historic Duranguito neighborhood has been like no other in El Paso – waged by community organizations and groups on the political front and in courts across Texas for more than two years.
It probably would have ended long ago were it not for one person: A retired Houston oilman with a passion for historic preservation, J.P. Bryan. He has bankrolled the efforts of UTEP art history professor Max Grossman and others to save Duranguito.
Like Grossman, he’s a Republican and identifies himself as a conservationist but not a tree-hugger. He attended law school, but went into banking and left that for the oil business where he made the fortune that has allowed him to pursue projects. He likes to save things.
They include the restoration of the Galveston Orphan’s Home and, more famously, the Henry Trost-designed Gage Hotel in Marathon, a project that turned that dusty, dying town into a thriving destination.
Like his father, his interest in history and saving things led him to the Texas State Historical Association where he served as president – like his father.
Bryan won’t say how much he’s spent trying to save Duranguito, but smiles painfully and nods at the suggestion that it’s been more than $1 million.
“I told my accountant, ‘Don’t tell me,’ ” he said, adding, “I’m not giving up until it makes no sense.”
His personal and financial support for Grossman, a small band of current and former Duranguito residents and the preservation movement has enraged city officials, the El Paso Chamber and others who want to get going on the multipurpose cultural and performing arts center, often referred to as the arena.
The city has also spent more than $1 million on lawyers and lost precious time on the $180-million project approved by voters in the 2012 quality of life bond election.
Mayor Dee Margo, once a friend of Bryan’s, says it would cost $250 million or more to build the center El Paso needs and is willing to spend what it takes to complete the project.
Meanwhile, Bryan contends that the city would violate the holy ground of El Paso’s birthplace if it proceeds with the project and should work harder to reap the benefits other cities have discovered in promoting heritage tourism.
On the night before last Saturday’s El Paso Preservation Forum, which drew a little over 100 people to the Downtown library, Bryan sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about what has motivated him to fight so hard and what the mayor agreed to when they and Woody Hunt met.
Q: You and others went to a great deal of trouble and some expense to put on the El Paso Preservation Forum at the El Paso Library. While the purpose is in the name, what do you hope will come out of it?
We hope to present in a convincing fashion to the citizens of El Paso the incredible opportunity they have to not just restore a historical asset but the birthplace of the city itself by creating an environment around Duranguito and in Duranguito that will literally be transformative to the city.
Q: What kind of environment are you talking about?
I’m talking about rehabilitating or restoring an area that could, in many ways, emulate what you see around the Alamo in San Antonio in the La Villita, where all of these complementary homes have enjoyed restoration and now bring great economic vitality to the city.
Far more commerce goes through there than is generated by the Alamo itself. It’s the surrounding neighborhood, or former neighborhood, that now is a viable part of the business environment of the city of San Antonio.
Q: You have invested a fortune, over a million dollars I’m sure, financing a legal challenge with the goal of saving Duranguito. Most of those battles have been lost, and it’s late in the game. How can you pull it out?
We can’t pull it out; you have to pull it out. You, being the citizens of this community. What seemed to me to be lacking is just a sense of outright outrage at the destruction of the birthplace of the entire city. How could this not outrage citizens?
Q: In all of this, how much money have you spent trying to save Duranguito?
It is. Honestly, I told my accountant, “Don’t tell me.” If you tell me and you say, “J.P., you can’t afford this anymore,” then I’ll back down. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to add it up. I imagine I’d be horrified. I’m not giving up until I think it makes no sense.
As I told your mayor when he told me, “You don’t live here,” I said I have a home in Houston and several other places. But I live in Texas, and as far as I’m concerned, what affects Texas affects everybody that lives in this state. If there’s something of historical significance to this city that’s being destroyed, I’m going to speak up.
But I’m not a tree-hugger. If it doesn’t add something significant to the community and the community doesn’t want to embrace it, then I’m not going to lay in front of the bulldozer.
Q: Have you ever waged a legal war like the one you’ve financed in El Paso to save something?
Nothing of this magnitude for sure, but when I was on the Texas Historical Commission, obviously we were involved in saving certain sites in some form of litigation. Normally, we weren’t involved in a lot of action.
Q: Do you consider yourself a Democrat or a Republican?
I’m most definitely a Republican, but I hate labels. I do believe in a creator. I think he made us. I think there are absolute laws in this world. I think financial responsibility is important, but social responsibility is important, too. I’m not an environmentalist, but I’m definitely a conservationist.
I’ve tried to restore our ranch. I’m not a billionaire, but I have been successful. That’s a temporary thing. You’re here today; you’re gone tomorrow. And I think to whom things are given, things are expected. We should be contributing to our community and helping people.
That should be how we define our lives, not how successful we were.
Q: Why is this place so important to you? Can you think of a parallel of a preservation fight in Texas?
There have been a lot of issues. Frankly, preservation in Texas has not fared well in most of those confrontations.
I was inspired by my visit to Duranguito when I saw what I believed were incredible opportunities to attract historical heritage tourists to this community in overwhelming numbers because you complement that same visitation with all the Trost buildings that are part of the architectural heritage of El Paso.
Think about this for a minute. El Paso is the only city in the state and only one other city in the United States that can make that same claim. That is, we can demonstrate that there are five cultures represented in this community: Native American, Spanish, Mexican, Anglo and Chinese. Not another city in America that can lay claim to that, and we can show them the buildings that identify those cultures.
Q: There is a lot of history in El Paso. What could the city be doing to capitalize on its history, especially in Duranguito?
The city ought to stop for a minute and say, “Sure, we like the little baseball field. It’s pretty. It attracts local people that want to be entertained.” I’m sure it brought some vitality to the Downtown community that was missing. But look at the cost.
Has anybody looked objectively at what that construction and ballpark are costing the taxpayers of this city? It’s being financed in large measure by $3 million a year in subsidies from the city from the hotel occupancy tax. That’s a total perversion of the purpose of the HOT tax. It is intended to attract tourists or visitors to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants.
You tell me how many attendees at that baseball stadium are going to spend the night in a Downtown hotel and eat in some fancy restaurant Downtown. They’re not. They’re going to eat hot dogs and drink beer, and they’re going to go home.
Q: How does that contrast with the Dome in San Antonio, which is also financed with hotel occupancy tax revenue?
It’s the football stadium, and it pays the city to be there. There is some very good empirical information that all of these G League basketball or AAA baseball leagues don’t make money.
A good example is Colorado Springs. The mayor of Colorado Springs said, “No. You want to bring your baseball team here? You are going to pay for it, and you are going to pay the city for it.”
Q: What did they do?
The mayor said, “If you want to come here, you pay. You not only pay for the entire facility, but you also pay us for the parking around it.” It is a revenue generator to the city. They came anyway.
It was Triple A, but they got downgraded. The city is enjoying less revenue because the team is not quite as exciting, but they are still there and they’re still paying the city.
Q: Why it is so important to save this five square block area?
There are nine buildings there that the city’s own study in 1998 identified as candidates for the National Register of Historic Places. The Chinese laundry? That’s the last Chinese building in the West that’s still standing. That’s the last symbol that we’ve got here in El Paso of those people’s contribution to building the Southern Pacific Railroad and what they gave to this community.
If we looked at Duranguito as a historical district, there are some thousand buildings that would be entitled to tax credits of 45 percent – 20 from the federal government, 25 percent from the state. A thousand buildings!
Can you imagine what that would do for the tax base of El Paso and the revenues that that could generate if those thousand buildings were developed.
Let’s contrast that with $180 million for a multicultural and entertainment center, which really the anchor is the arena and comes under the cover of dark into existence. It wasn’t very transparent. They didn’t say, “Hey! We’re going to build a sports arena along with this multicultural arts and entertainment center.”
Why didn’t they? The (former) city manager who testified said that it was because it would have been a lightning rod for people to vote against it.
Q: If the city decided not to build there, would you invest in that neighborhood? What would you do?
I already told them I would. I had a negotiation with Mayor Dee Margo and his staff about trying to save Duranguito. We came to some sort of a compromise, and we agreed to it. He came back to me and said, “I want to buy the land north.” All this is in writing.
He said he was going to move a big part off the site there to accommodate our efforts to try to preserve the important buildings and 14 buildings that are subjects for the National Register.
Q: What was Woody Hunt’s role in the arena negotiations between Dee Margo and you?
I don’t know what he and Dee talked about. It was simply a suggestion that we have somebody from the business community. Woody is a respected guy and had obviously felt strongly about the resurrection of Downtown.
We thought obviously Dee has his own constituents here, and he needs their support if this thing is going to work. If we convince the mayor and convince Woody that this is sensible, maybe we’ll get it done. I thought we did it.
Q: The city’s cornered at this point. Voters did approve $180 million six years ago for a performing arts and cultural center with sports.
But there’s no “with sports” in it. It wasn’t in the ballot language you voted for. The question is who’s going to benefit from this? Somebody must know.
My point is the city is going to spend $180 million on something. It wouldn’t have to spend anything on the restoration of Duranguito. It already owns a bunch of buildings in there, and it could hold on to them and make some contribution maybe.
I think they paid $10 million for them, so they own all these buildings, and they can say, “Alright, you know what? That’s not that much money in terms of $180 million. So, we’re going to contribute this as part of our efforts to restore the entire area and bring heritage tourism.”
Q: We’ve got a lot of history, but it doesn’t seem we’ve brought much heritage tourism to El Paso.
Did you know that heritage tourism is the fastest growing business in Texas today by far? And, do you know what major city has the least number of heritage tourists of any city? El Paso. Do you see any outreach? Do you know what the City Council has wisely done over the last 10 or 15 years? They’ve allowed the demolition of 10 buildings in Downtown El Paso that were designed by Henry Trost.
Trost is probably or could be one of the greatest architects America has ever produced. There are 150 buildings by Trost in this city alone. He did 650 throughout the entire Southwest in every architectural style you can imagine. His finest buildings were in this city. Think what it could be.
You don’t have to be a genius or a Walt Disney to come up with what could be a wonderful experience for people that came to see El Paso.
Q: If heritage tourism is so great, why don’t more people visit the Magoffin Home?
Well, because you don’t advertise the damn thing.
Q: What would keep Duranguito from ending up the way it was?
The city created the blight themselves because they had this idea to build this arena in the area. Once they announced that, everybody stopped investing. Who’s going to invest money in an area that they know is going to be torn down?
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Q: But there were investor owners, though they didn’t oppose the city’s plans.
They did it for a whole different reason. They weren’t the normal person who was going to go to the little restaurant there or invest their life savings. These people were bigger, more ambitious. I don’t know all the politics in it, but certainly, it had a whole different objective than trying to restore and do something historical.
Q: You do have some experience, don’t you?
I would not be an advocate for this had I not seen how effective it works. I know it from personal experience. I bought two buildings that have transformed entire communities. The Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas, was about to blow away.
We restored the Gage Hotel, but we just didn’t restore a building. We restored the soul of a little town, and it’s made all the difference to those people in that community, just the restoration of that one building.
Q: Where else?
We’ve done the same thing in Galveston. I bought an old orphanage, and we put a museum there in a historical area of town. Nothing was going on. Things were getting a little shop-worn or a little shabby. You can see the sudden revitalization.
Q: What’s your relationship with Mayor Dee Margo?
I have known Dee for a long time, supported him in several of his campaigns, one in which he was successful and one not so. His wife is the reason I’m involved in all this.
Q: How did you get interested in El Paso? Was it Adair Margo? And are you still involved with the Tom Lea Institute?
I got involved in El Paso first because of my friendship with Carl Hertzog who was a book designer here in El Paso and probably the finest book designer ever. He and Tom Lea were good pals, and they did things together – as was Jose Cisneros. Jose and Carl and Tom were all collaborators. I had a good friendship with Jose and Carl.
I came here frequently, and then I bought the Gage Hotel. I came here all the time to buy stuff, a lot of antique furniture and things of that nature. A guy named Jack Delaney, who had El Paso Imports, became very good friends and with other people here and the community that I knew from college. I went to the University of Texas. I had college friends here, the Bassett family and people like that.
I always liked El Paso, loved El Paso. I used to come here, and we’d go to restaurants over in Juárez. I love coming here to shop. I felt a real affinity with the place, and then I met Adair. I ended up buying all of Jose’s collection. Adair asked me to go on the Tom Lea Institute, and I did. I was one of the first significant contributors to the organization. I came here and did a number of talks.
In 2015, I think it was, she called me in a panic and said the city had refused to inventory its historical assets. I said, “My God, why not?” She said, “The only thing I can think of is that they don’t want any sort of demolition of them to be impeded anywhere.” I said, “My gosh, that’s tragic.” She said, “Well, can you come out here and do something about it?” I said, “Well, Adair, what would I do?” She said, “People enjoyed talks and things about El Paso and its uniqueness. Could you come out and try to convince people that it’s something that we should do?” I said, “Well, sure.” I came and I made at least two, maybe three, talks to assembled groups of people.
You’ve got such a great history here, and everybody seems to ignore it. It’s like it didn’t even happen. I have seen what’s happened with the Gage Hotel and the little town of Marathon. I’ve seen what’s happened in Galveston. I’ve seen what’s happened to Round Top, Texas, where people start restoring these buildings, and it suddenly transforms the whole community. I said there’s real attention that needs to be paid to this. That’s how I got involved.
I helped to start the Trost Society because my hotel’s a Trost building. I paid for the director of that organization for the last couple of years. I’ve gotten people I know that have Trost buildings involved.
I continue to support the Tom Lea Institute. I will for the rest of my life because I admire Tom’s talents greatly. But as I told Adair, I think the organization needs to expand itself beyond Tom Lea and talk about the influence that other people had on him, as well as others in the area that were creative.
Q: Is there another historical area of El Paso that you think is threatened and in need of public attention, not to mention investment?
I think we’ve got our boat loaded with this one. If we can’t take care of this one, why take care of anything else? This ought to be the most compelling. We had a plan with the mayor where we even said, “Look, we’ll sacrifice the Chinese laundry if that’s what it takes, and we’ll try to raise the money to move it, even though that doesn’t seem appropriate.”
It seems like you ought to be able to find someplace. If you’re going to build a multicultural entertainment and arts center, why can’t part of it be the Chinese laundry? It could be a center for Chinese studies and culture. Make Chinese involvement in the West part of it and bring in all the other cultures.
Q: Other than the significant investment you have made in legal expenses to save Duranguito, have you considered any other projects here akin to what you’ve done with the Gage Hotel?
I’m 78 years old, so I’m not looking for a lot of new projects in my life. I never, ever intended to be involved in this sort of upheaval. I had only one objective: I wanted to see the Trost Society form. I want to see people respect what Henry Trost left, the incredible legacy he’s left here – and have everybody in the city take notice of it.
Look, if Frank Lloyd Wright had lived in El Paso, Texas, and had designed his only one style architectural feature – Prairie Style – from this location, and he built a bunch of houses here, do you think that the city would have ignored his effort? That’s the question that I would ask the city. Would you treat him the same way you’re treating Henry Trost? Would you treat him the same way you’re treating the historical birthplace of your city?
Ponce de Leon’s ranch was the first built structure north of the Rio Grande River thanks to the Apache Indians. Rupert N. Richardson said, “This ground is holy. Shake the dust from your feet.” It is; this is holy ground.
Q: Who was Rupert Richardson?
He was a great Texas historian, one of the founders of the Texas Historical Commission. I’m repeating him because this is what you’ve got. This is holy ground.
Q: The biggest instigator behind the fight over Duranguito has been the UTEP art history professor Max Grossman, a scholar of Italian architecture and history and former vice chair of our County Historical Commission. How did you meet him and what would you say about him?
I met him through the Trost Society and Adair Margo. She introduced me to him and his wife and highly recommended both of them. We were here after Adair’s call telling me that the city had turned down the survey of the historical buildings. He had prepared the study. I went to him to get the information so that I would have some fluency with what I was going to say on the subject.
I was very interested in the contradictions in Max. One, he’s Jewish, but he teaches a lot of Christian architecture in his studies. He’s a professor of history, and he’s conservative – not liberal. I think this guy is very different, but he’s brilliant and enthusiastic. I like Max a lot. Somebody told me I’m under his influence.
I’ve been in the oil business for 78 years, and it’s going to take a real magician to fool me.
Q: How did you get where you are? You made your fortune in the oil business, I understand.
The interesting thing is the mayor – I’m sure he meant it as an insult – said this billionaire oil man who’s here meddling in our community doesn’t know anything about El Paso. My banker called me up the next day and said, “J.P., I’m really happy to hear about your financial success. You’re a billionaire now, huh? Why didn’t you tell us?”
I was really hurt by that because I never felt that way. Before Dee was elected when he was running for office, I spoke to him about it because I was already embroiled in the thing. I said, “Dee, what are you going to do about Duranguito?” He said, “There are a lot of issues there. We’re going to do the right thing.” I said, “Well, that’s good,” and kind of left it at that. I never wanted to be on the opposite side of Dee in this thing.
He kind of criticized me a little bit and rightly so. He said, “Why didn’t you call me sooner when this thing first started?” I said, “Well, it looked to me like you’d already staked yourself out, your position out, pretty clearly, and I didn’t know how effective that would be. Look, Dee, I’m willing to do whatever to avoid a confrontation.”
I flew into El Paso and met with him. We sat down, and he said, “This is what we were going to do,” and he showed me the map. He said, “This is what we’re proposing now to do.” I looked at it, and we went over it. I said, “Dee, I think that’s a reasonable compromise. We’re going to have to give something, but that’s what happens.”
Q: Was this proposal supposed to save Duranguito?
A good part of it, yeah.
Q: Would not it have taken out the northern end that included the mansion and the Chinese laundry and the buildings between?
The mansion would have stayed. The Chinese laundry would have been the one casualty, but what I had suggested to him is maybe we could raise the money to move it. My idea was we would go to the Chinese community in California and around the United States and say we’ve got an important Chinese structure.
Q: You made a passionate speech with the Texas Historical Commission about preserving history in Texas and in El Paso. Where did that come from and how might the THC get involved in this issue?
They’re going to make a ruling here pretty shortly on whether they issue a state antiquities landmark status (SAL). We’re appealing to them to designate these buildings in Duranguito a SAL, which means you can’t tear down the structures there.
You need to do the archaeological study of the area, which Moore Archaeological Consulting is going to do. As part of that plan, Moore is going to tear down the buildings and then go do it because that’s what the city wants him to do. They know if they tear the buildings down, we have nothing to object about anymore. It would be nice to find out what was there, but it doesn’t preserve the integrity.
Q: Legally speaking, what are our things now?
We’re going to hear from the judge. It’s going to be very interesting. It’s going to be precedent setting. The permit for that was issued only by the director of the Texas Historical Commission. The permit for the archaeological excavation and the permit that Moore filed with the Commission will require that all the buildings be destroyed.
But that can’t happen without the approval of the full commission.
Q: Is there any chance that the commissioners would disagree?
I think they could unanimously disagree or almost.
If the citizens of El Paso don’t want to do this, then you know what? I’m through. I’ve done the best job I can to make you aware of the historical assets. My life’s going to go on, and I’m going to go do something with people that are more appreciative of trying to save something.