A loose knit group of local architects, historians and preservationists has formed a small but growing power base in El Paso.
Drawn together by the loss of several historic buildings in Downtown over the past two years, their influence is starting to be felt there.
The Texas Trost Society is the newest member of that group. It was formed last year by young El Pasoan Malissa Arras to promote the work of architect Henry C. Trost and, more broadly, preserve the architectural heritage of El Paso.
Trost, who died more than 80 years ago, has become known as the Southwest’s most famous architect, and lately, interest in preserving his buildings has been growing in El Paso.
El Paso has been called Trost’s “masterwork.” His firm Trost & Trost is credited with building as many as 150 buildings here, including some of El Paso’s most iconic buildings – the Anson Mills Building, Camino Real Hotel and Bassett Tower in Downtown.
He also designed El Paso High School and the first Bhutanese-style buildings at the University of Texas at El Paso, as well as many well-known homes.
Some of his buildings in Downtown have been restored, like the Mills Building, but others are crumbling.
And last year, two were demolished and are now empty lots: the John T. Muir building owned by Borderplex Community Trust and the Union Bank and Trust building owned by River Oaks Properties.
The buildings were built by Trost nearly 100 years ago and occupied busy corners in Downtown. Although the buildings are located in the Downtown Historic District, the owners argued successfully that it was not economically feasible to preserve the buildings.
The demolition of the Muir Building attracted the attention of the great niece of Trost, Margaret Smith, who visited El Paso from her home in Arizona to oppose the demolition.
The Trost Society was formed shortly after. Its first donation came from a young developer named Lane Gaddy who has purchased several big Downtown buildings designed by Trost and has announced plans to refurbish them.
Malissa Arras, 27, was raised in El Paso. She attended Coronado High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Texas at El Paso.
She then served a year in AmeriCorps, working in New Hampshire to develop art programs for refugees and immigrants.
Then, she studied art history and architectural theory at the American University of Rome in Italy and worked at the American Academy there cataloging artifacts.
Now she splits her time between El Paso, where she does fundraising and grant writing for the Tom Lea Institute, and California, where she’s working on a master’s degree in art management at Claremont Graduate University.
The society made its big public debut last week when it launched a public campaign against River Oaks Properties, one of the city’s largest retail developers, which intends to demolish a cluster of five buildings at the corner of Mesa and San Antonio in Downtown.
Since hearing of the demolition plans last Monday, local experts have been researching the history of the buildings.
They’ve discovered that one of them was built between 1896 and 1897, making it the oldest standing masonry building in the heart of Downtown. It has an ornate Italian-Romanesque facade, which is intact but has been whitewashed.
Adam Frank, the president of River Oaks Properties, told El Paso Inc. it is not economically feasible to restore the buildings, which don’t have any official historic designations. River Oaks intends to clear the corner of the buildings and then search for a developer interested in building something on it, he said.
In the meantime, further east in South-Central El Paso, another battle was fought last week over the future of the old Lincoln Center, which is tucked under the Spaghetti Bowl highway interchange.
The years-old effort to save the historic building from demolition reached a climax on Wednesday as protestors formed a human chain around the building.
The Texas Department of Transportation says the building must be demolished to make way for a bridge, but protestors said the more than 100-year-old building is an important part of the neighborhood’s culture and there are alternatives that don’t involve the demolition of the building.
In the end, city representatives voted 5-0 at an emergency session to seek a temporary restraining order, and TxDOT has agreed to delay the demolition until October.
Those trying to save the cluster of five buildings in Downtown hope something similar might be done to halt the demolition and have sent a letter to city representatives and the mayor.
Arras sat down with El Paso Inc. in the Anson Mills Building and talked about what the society will do, why El Paso’s past is important to its future and how historic preservation can be good business.
Q: How did you become interested in Henry Trost?
I got interested in Henry Trost when I first went to an El Paso County Historical Commission meeting. Everybody was happy to have somebody under 30 at the meeting.
It was early last year and I met UTEP art history professor Max Grossman who started telling me about Henry. They had just lost the battle to save two Trost buildings in Downtown: Union Bank and Trust and the Muir Building.
I was familiar with Trost’s buildings and loved them, and Max said that it would be great if we had somebody to start a group that talks about Trost and why his buildings are important for the city.
I met with a friend who is a web developer, and Lane Gaddy gave us a donation so we could design a logo.
Q: Your first donation came from Gaddy, the young developer working to restore three big Trost buildings in Downtown?
I sat down with him at lunch. I’m a development specialist for Adair Margo with the Tom Lea Institute, so I write grants and such for a living, and I told him we would help him where we could to research tax credits and such.
We’re kind of small fries right now, but I try. He said sure and gave us the donation, and we were able to get a logo. From there, we were able to start developing the website, TexasTrost.org.
We are developing a 3D interactive walking map online with help from Grossman at UTEP that would guide you through Downtown and talk to you about historic buildings. We hope it might also be a resource for schools and students.
Q: Why did you found the society? What do you hope to accomplish?
I founded the society because as much as the County Historical Commission and other important groups were fighting to save these buildings, there wasn’t a lot of outreach. You know, going out to the public and saying: “Hey, this is a Trost building and this is why he is important to our heritage.”
A big part of what makes an El Pasoan an El Pasoan is our history and heritage, and a big part of that is captured in our historic buildings. The buildings keep the stories that we use to tell what happened in our past. They are the setting for that history and draw you back to the past.
My dream someday is for the society to host a Trost Day – kind of like a Renaissance fair where everybody dresses up or like Plimoth Plantation. You would spend the day like it is Old El Paso. I don’t know why I think that would be cool, but I’m really geeky.
The other place I see the group going is helping groups of investors that don’t have as much money restore some of the smaller buildings on El Paso Street, for example.
Q: Isn’t helping them research the history of the buildings and navigate the process of applying for historic tax credits extremely cumbersome even for large developers?
Exactly. It doesn’t matter who you are or how many lawyers you have or how many CPAs you have, it is still a nightmare to get some of those credits and you wait years. My dream would be able to help streamline that process for people locally.
Q: How is the society supported?
We have been given some donations and have made some money giving Downtown tours, but I have to really prioritize what we spend our money on. We are all volunteers. We are hosted right now by the Tom Lea Institute, which is keeping the books for us.
Q: What is your favorite Trost building?
(Long pause) I love the Bassett Tower – I love it. It’s Art Deco, ornate and just has so many details that are unexpected. It’s thought that one of the gargoyles on the building is Trost’s face. There are eagles on only one side of the building, and we are not quite sure why.
Q: Why is Trost, and his work in El Paso, important? He is not a household name like Frank Lloyd Wright.
Around the time of Frank Lloyd Wright, Trost was very well known across the nation. People came to El Paso to see Trost’s buildings. So we know he was important then.
But as to why he is important now, he embodied the Southwest, what it meant to live in an arid climate, in his architecture. In 1916, the firm Trost & Trost had 42 buildings under construction in three states, including 12 in Downtown El Paso. At the time, El Paso was a boomtown and that was where all the money was.
There is a story that as a building was being painted white, Trost looked at the building and told the worker to stop. Then he took the bucket of paint out back and put a bunch of sand in it and then had the painter paint the sand into the building, and it actually looked like the terrain.
Q: What are some of the bright spots for historic preservation in El Paso?
We’re sitting in one.
Q: In the Mills Building, restored several years ago by businessman Paul Foster.
Of the 38 Trost buildings in Downtown, there are still 26 standing. People do love his buildings; they have their favorite, and they know them well.
The big Trost buildings are not coming down. We just have to make sure we don’t lose sight of the “smaller buildings” that are in disrepair. We have to remember those.
Listen, all the historic buildings aren’t built by Trost. We have many beautiful buildings, and we can’t let those go either. If you think of Downtown as a quilt, some of the pieces have been patched up, but overall it is intact.
But what happens if you take scissors and cut a big whole in that quilt? You turn it into a tattered rag. The demolition of the two Trost buildings last year left big gaping holes in Downtown.
Q: Last week was really the first time we’ve seen the Trost Society jump in and launch a public campaign. It is opposing the demolition of a cluster of five Downtown buildings by River Oaks Properties. Why should they be saved? They are located just outside the Downtown Historic District and don’t have any official historic designations.
The boundaries of the Downtown Historic District that were drawn in 1992 are arbitrary. We are not even sure how the person went about drawing the boundaries.
You find historic buildings that have been carved out of the district, and it’s not clear why. You have streets where one side is in the district and the other not, and there are beautiful historic buildings on both sides.
Q: What has been discovered so far about the history of the five buildings slated for demolition?
The building at 214 San Antonio, for example, was built in 1897, making it one of the oldest buildings in the Downtown core. The gorgeous Italian-Romanesque facade is intact but has been whitewashed over and the windows boarded.
The buildings housed some eclectic pieces of El Paso history that are interesting and kind of strange to learn about. The building at 212 San Antonio used to have a turret and was the first headquarters of the Knights of Pythias, a fraternity like the Freemasons.
San Antonio Street has great potential to become a historical corridor, something like the Gas Lamp Quarter in San Diego. Tourists could walk a couple of blocks from the Camino Real Hotel or Doubletree and have some really interesting architecture and history to explore.
Q: What you’re saying is it is not so much historic preservation versus Downtown redevelopment. Rather, historic preservation is an economic driver that supports the revitalization of Downtown?
Exactly. Part of what has driven economic activity and revitalization in places like San Antonio, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Boston and New York is making the old buildings look beautiful again.
You don’t have to preserve the entire building. It’s worth a lot more economically, and you retain the cultural value, if you preserve the facade and build new behind it, like they do in other cities. You can’t do that if the building is gone.
Q: But don’t the developers here have a legitimate argument? Some of these Downtown buildings are in very poor shape, and they aren’t the iconic landmarks like the Bassett Tower or Mills Building. It’s just not economically feasible to refurbish them all, they argue, and people should focus on saving the big buildings.
Who let these buildings get into such bad shape to begin with? Of course, people don’t want to rent your buildings when they look like they do and the reason they look like they do is because you didn’t invest in the building so it could even pass code.
It’s not just the big buildings that matter. I’m sorry. Nobody is going to visit your city if it is just parking lots and strip malls.
Last week, there was an emergency City Council session and representatives voted to seek a temporary restraining order that has temporarily halted the demolition of the Lincoln Center.
It gives me hope that City Council is not idle and they can prevent the demolition of historic buildings.
Q: So is the Trost Society going to approach city representatives or the mayor?
Our strategy right now is to write a letter to River Oaks Properties, write an open letter to the mayor and City Council and then contact different city representatives personally to help them realize the potential of these buildings.
We need to change the policies so Downtown property owners are enfranchised to fix up their buildings and that codes are enforced. So that property owners are supported for doing something good and fixing up their buildings.
It’s El Paso that is losing – it is not the Trost Society, the preservationists, the future developers, it is the whole city. The identity of El Pasoans is being demolished piece by piece and turned into a parking lot, and I don’t want my city to become a series of parking lots.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.