The first time I came to El Paso back in 1999 downtown was not some place that people really wanted to go and frequent since it was rundown and filled with shady characters. However, over the past few years downtown El Paso has really fixed itself up and is becoming a more attractive place for people from across the city to visit.
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I picked up a pamphlet that highlights a walking tour around downtown El Paso while visiting the city zoo recently. This pamphlet was put out by the El Paso County Historical Commission and the El Paso Convention & Visitors Bureau. The pamphlet was quite well done and informative so on a recent weekend I decided to go ahead and follow the walking tour around downtown El Paso highlighted in the pamphlet. Most of the historical information provided in this posting comes from what I read in this great downtown walking tour pamphlet and most of the historic pictures are from this El Paso city government website. Here is a map that shows the walking tour I followed around downtown El Paso:
I parked near San Jacinto Plaza and proceeded to walk to the various historic buildings described in the brochure. I discovered that San Jacinto Plaza had a very interesting history. It first started out as a corral for the ranch started by Juan Maria Ponce de Leon in 1927. Ponce de Leon is considered the founder of El Paso since he was the first Mexican to settle the north side of the Rio Grande River. The ending of the US-Mexico War in 1848 caused Ponce’s ranch to become part of the United States. He ended up selling his ranch in 1849 to a businessman and growth the growth of El Paso began which was aided by the establishment of Ft. Bliss along the river as well. The land where Ponce’s corral once stood was donated to the city of El Paso in 1903 to be used as a public square. The city council named it San Jacinto Plaza in honor of the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, Texas. Over the years the park was beautified with trees and a gazebo with much of the beautification surviving to this day:
Here is a historic picture from 1920 to compare to today’s plaza to:
Probably the most interesting aspect of the plaza is the fact it was once home to alligators. Yes alligators once lived in the plaza:
Here is a historic picture of these alligators from the 1950’s:
The alligators are long gone now since they were removed from the plaza in 1967 and housed in the city zoo instead. The history of the plaza’s alligators is still not completely gone however. Today there is a large fiberglass statue in the plaza that pays tribute to this unique part of El Paso’s history:
The first building I saw from the plaza was the S.H. Kress Building:
This building was designed by the Kress Company architect Edward Sibbert in 1938. This building was home to the 5 to 10 cent Kress Store from 1938 to 1997. There was a few miscellaneous stores on the street level of the building but I’m not sure if the rest of the building is used for anything. It looks like this building was once quite a beautiful sight but now a days it looks quite rundown and derelict. Hopefully some day soon someone buys the building and gives it the remodeling it desperately needs.
On another corner across the street from the plaza is the Mills Building:
This building is fixed up and looks quite nice. The Mills Building sits right on top of the exact site of where the Ponce de Leon Ranch once stood. This building was designed by Henry C. Trost and construction was completed in 1911. So this building is 100 years old this year. Pretty impressive for a building that is still in great shape. The Mills family that originally built the building sold it in 1965. Since then it has seen multiple renovations and today still serves as professional office space for various companies and businesses in El Paso. Here is a historic picture of the Mills Building after its opening in 1911 that shows how impressively well renovated this building is:
Right next to the Mills Building is the Centre Building:
This building used to be the Old White House Department Store and Hotel McCoy that first opened in 1912. So this another impressively old El Paso building that looks great for its age. The first floor is where the department store was housed while the remaining floors were for the hotel. The building was renovated into office space in 1985 which it continues to be used for today. This was also another building that was designed by Henry Trost. Trost was inspired by Chicago architecture which is quite obvious by the buildings he designed in El Paso. Here is a historic picture of the building from 1915, notice the old trolley car tracks that used to run by the building:
Adjacent to the old department store was the Plaza Theatre:
This theatre was designed by architect W. Scott Dunne in the Spanish Colonial Revival Style. It first opened in 1930 to a capacity crowd of 2,410 people. The theatre was once considered a glamorous place to be but by the 1970’s it fell into a steep decline. It became so derelict that the Plaza Theatre was faced with demolition to make a parking lot back in 1986. A community fundraising campaign however led to the saving of the theatre. It took many years to raise the money to renovate the building but in 2006 the Plaza Theatre reopened and is now once again a popular attraction in downtown El Paso. During the summer they had a film festival here that we would bring our daughter to go watch some of the Disney cartoons like Dumbo they were showing on the big screen. It was a lot of fun.
Across from the Plaza Theatre is the Plaza Motor Hotel:
This hotel was originally built over the remains of the Hotel Sheldon that housed many figures from the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900’s. However, the Sheldon burned down in 1929 and in its place Conrad Hilton built the Hilton Hotel which was completed in 1930. The Hilton Hotel was sold in 1963 and renamed the Plaza Motor Hotel. A interesting historical tidbit is that Elizabeth Taylor briefly lived in a penthouse in the hotel after marrying Conrad Hilton’s son Nicky. This hotel was yet another building designed by Trost but instead of a Chicago style of architecture he went with an art deco style instead:
At 239 feet (73 m) the hotel was once the tallest building in El Paso and still the 3rd tallest today. In 1991 the hotel ceased operations thus leaving its 200+ rooms vacant. The plaza is a nice looking building but is in serious need of renovations. Hopefully the building like others in El Paso will be fully renovated and reopened. It would be really cool I think if Hilton was to come back and reopen this hotel.
In front of the Plaza Hotel is Pioneer Plaza that is home to a large sculpture of Frey Garcia de San Francisco:
According to the historical marker at the site, Fray Garcia was born in Old Castile Spain and traveled to Mexico in 1629 where he became a Franciscan priest serving in the province of New Mexico. In 1659 he established the Manso Indian Mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the Pass of the North, a strategic location on the Camino Real trail that ran between Mexico City and Santa Fe, New Mexico. This was considered the first European settlement in the El Paso and Juarez area. The sculpture depicts Fray Garcia in the act of building the mission, in this right hand he holds the lintel beam bearing the name of the mission and year of its founding. The Mission Grape represents European agriculture which he introduced in the are. His original mission still stands in downtown Juarez. In El Paso’s early days Pioneer Plaza was the center of activity in the city as people congregated here since the trails that led to El Paso converged at this downtown area. As El Paso grew a larger public space was needed since Pioneer Plaza was so small and that is why San Jacinto Plaza was established in 1903.
A hotel that is not in need of renovations is the beautiful El Camino Real Hotel that located across the street from Pioneer Plaza:
The Camino Real was originally called the Hotel El Paso Del Norte and is yet another building that was originally designed by Trost and constructed in 1912. The building was recently renovated and judging by appearances alone it is the nicest looking hotel in all of El Paso:
Here is a historic picture of the old Hotel El Paso Del Norte from 1912 that you can compare to today’s hotel:
The Hotel El Paso Del Norte was a favorite hang out originally for cattlemen to meet and cut deals. It was said that more cattle was bought in sold in the lobby of this hotel then anywhere else in the world. I really think if the city can get the bulk of the business travelers to El Paso away from the airport and I-10 and back to downtown that would really do a lot to continue the revitalization of the city. That is why I think getting the Hilton name back on the Plaza Hotel and renovating it like what has been done with the Camino Real would do a lot to encourage travelers to stay in downtown. An underground parking garage of some kind like they have with the Camino Real would need to be built considering the sparse parking situation downtown. Anyone else have any thoughts on this issue?
Next Posting: Walking Tour of Downtown El Paso – Part 2