Sunday, May 8, 2016

First National Bank Building: 1882-2012

The First National Bank Building was a beautiful building on the corner of San Antonio and El Paso streets.  As the name states, it was originally a bank, but in later years it had various other uses. 

Perhaps the most famous was its use as the law offices of notorious gunfighter John Wesley Hardin, hence the building's informal name of the John Wesley Hardin Building (I'll tend to use FNB but will also use JWH to refer to the building). 

What was unique about the First National Bank Building was the architectural styles that meshed particularly well. 

"The first two stories are fashioned to be Italianate style, unlike the third floor, which is styled in the Second Empire style.
This third floor is what distinguished the building from anything else in El Paso. The roof was Mansard-type and had no gables, unlike other roofs, which allows the building to efficiently use the traditional attic space as rooms.
It was these rooms that housed many influential mayors in the 1800’s, and served as the office of the infamous attorney turned gunslinger, John Wesley Hardin. The all crème color painted building stood only feet in front of the Anson Mills Building." (Lucia Quinonez, El Paso Newspaper Tree).

I was always fascinated by this building, which I would encounter many times whenever I would go to the Plaza Theater as a child and adult, or the El Paso Convention and Performing Arts Center (which I still call the Civic Center).  I was always in awe of its color and its unique third floor, which truly set it apart from the other buildings in Downtown.

This principle of being so uncharacteristic from the other buildings is what for example makes the Guggenheim in New York so special (that, and the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright, who with Henry Trost and I.M. Pei is one of my favorite architects).

In 2011 I got a few quick shots of the FNB.

As you can see, the FNB was used for commercial interests, which is typical of many historic buildings Downtown and which I think is as it should be.  A building is meant to be used.

A closer look indicates that FBN, despite its use, did need some work.  If you look at the center of the third floor, you can see a gap, an open area that I don't think was meant to be there.

I thought I had a close-up shot of that gap, but I cannot find it.  If I do I will post it.

These shots were in 2011.  Put it up to my naïve nature and optimism that I thought the FNB would be around for a few more years.  Well, perhaps I should have known better.

In April 2012, we got this.

The building burned to the ground.  According to news reports, the fire went on for four hours, and as we can see, the fire was so extensive that the remains, what they were, were shocking.

River Oaks Properties managed the building, according to the ABC affiliate.  As far as I can make out, the cause of the fire is still 'undetermined'. 

One can only speculate, and I think we can rule out arson.  I think the most probably cause was electric, due in part to neglect of the owners.  So long as the businesses that are housed in buildings pay on time, everything else can perhaps be overlooked.

If anyone can tell me what exactly caused the fire, I'll make the necessary corrections.

When once we had was this...

we now have this...

yet another glorious empty lot in the Downtown El Paso area.  Nothing like El Paso Progress.

Now I'm not faulting the City Council specifically for this empty lot.  The fire was so devastating that there was simply no way to save it. It was so bad that if you can see, the buildings next to the FNB were also torn down (the photos show that they were damaged or perhaps close to being taken down with the FNB).  Also, the City had at the time of the John Wesley Hardin Building fire was barely starting to get things organized to save the historic structures.

What DOES concern me now are two issues.  The first is what exactly to do with this empty lot.

As you can see, it just is there, a nice ugly black spot to ponder.  On the left, you may notice a bench facing the lot, perhaps asking those sitting to contemplate the emptiness of the area.

The City/River Oaks could turn this area into a small park.  It could also be used to place one of the XII Travelers statues, a project to commemorate the EP's glorious past.

Out of those Twelve Statues, we have currently...two: Fray Garcia and Don Juan de Onate, the latter becoming so controversial because of Onate's 500+ year's ago treatment of the Native Americans that a small but loud group forced the statue to be moved from Cleveland Square to the El Paso International Airport.

At the very least, a marker could be placed there to commemorate what was there.

However, my sense is that River Oaks/EP City Council would rather just let it sit there than to do something.  Or they're both waiting to make it into yet another parking lot (the City Council is particularly fond of parking lots...but not of free parking).

My second concern is the issue of fire safety/code violations.  Downtown El Paso appears to be a tinderbox.  The nearby American Furniture Company Building and the Caples Building, both falling apart as well, are in such shabby shape that a fire could easily break out in those (perhaps conveniently too).  Furthermore, we saw that the John Wesley Harding Building fire impacted the nearby buildings. 

As late a month ago, reports of a Downtown fire potentially impacting the nearby buildings should alert the City at large that if nothing is done, a good part of Downtown will recreate 1066 London.  This most recent fire was so strong the smoke could be smelled at Southwest University Park during an El Paso Baseball game.

This is a very serious and no pun intended, alarming situation.  If things continue to slide, if violators are not strictly punished and codes not enforced, there may come a time when a fire will overwhelm the EPFD and many buildings, historic or not, will go down in flames. 

Will it take that kind of conflagration to wake El Paso as a whole up?  I do not hope so, but I fear so.

The area that was once the First National Bank/John Wesley Hardin Building should be put to good use.  I think a park/monument area would be the ideal, making the best out of a bad circumstance.  Whether the City/River Oaks will do so, or just figure the empty lot is the best we can do I cannot say.

Ain't it lovely?  Just lovely...

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Welcome to My El Paso

Perhaps everyone is proud of their hometown.  I say perhaps because I hear many native El Pasoans who say they can't wait to leave The EP. 

I was never like that.  I love El Paso, Texas and cannot understand why so many want to leave.  Well, up to a point.

I think El Paso is full of that dreadful word 'potential'.  'Potential' to me means we have the capacity for greatness, but not the will.  El Paso is surrounded with great history, great people, and great resources.  However, El Pasoans seem determined to destroy it, having little to no interest in anything that came before maybe 1960.

It is comes before that, some El Pasoans consider it useless.  Sadly, those El Pasoans are in government and industry.

I see this rush to demolish or desecrate what we in The EP have, on how El Pasoans willingly bulldoze and demolish the history all around us.  Case in point: Southwest University Park vs. the John T. Muir Building.

In order to build the new Downtown baseball stadium for the AAA-baseball team, the City Council agreed to have the 40-year-old City Council building demolished.  There was mass outrage at the news.  People were desperate to save a rather ugly building that was younger than some of the protesters.  Many were upset at the thought of City Hall coming down. 

As far as a good chunk of El Pasoans were concerned, City Hall, a building not even a half-century old, needed to be preserved.

Compare that to the John Muir building a few blocks away. 

It began as the Commercial Bank Building, designed by legendary architect Henry Trost, and opened in 1916.  It saw a lot of damage when it was 'reconverted', if memory serves, as a Payless Shoe Source story.  We can see that the middle section was covered up with a very dull grey board.

Ah, El Paso.

In 2013, the Borderplex Community Trust wanted to tear it down.  The Historic Landmark Commission voted unanimously to reject their request to demolish a nearly century-old building.  Enraged, BCT went over the HLC and went straight to City Council. 

In the government's infinite wisdom, City Council voted unanimously to overturn the HLC and let them tear the Muir Building down.  Not ones to wait, they began tearing it down at midnight.

In exchange for tearing down a nearly 100-year-old building, Borderplex stated it would build a mixed-use building.

Three years later, the site of the John T. Muir building is the lovely empty lot we need in The EP, with no plans to put up anything in the near future or the distant future.

El Pasoans never said a word...I figure since they either didn't know, or didn't care.

In short, if El Paso tears down a 40-year-old building, it is a scandal.  If El Paso tears down a 97-year-old building, it is of no concern.

Even in that destruction, a strange sign of hope emerged.

A serious of previously lost wall ads from prior to the Muir's construction were discovered.  History, despite El Pasoans' fierce determination, keeps reappearing.

Of course, right now they are behind a chain fence.  That is a blessing and curse: blessing in that there is a chance to preserve it for future generations, curse in that if I know El Paso like I think I know El Paso, it won't be long before they either paint over it or just knock it down.

I am distressed at this odd concept of rushing to destroy the past and leave nothing in its place.  I know that things eventually disappear, but there is so much that is beautiful in The EP that to see it go down in ruins due to a mixture of greed and indifference.

With this in mind, I begin My El Paso, where I hope to chronicle El Paso's historic buildings and hidden areas before the City decides to create the world's largest parking lot.  I'll throw in my own ideas and thoughts on the various parts of the Sun City. 

Every so often I'll go to some part of El Paso, throw up some pictures, and offer commentary on the subject.  It's my small effort to chronicle something of El Paso before it is lost.  I hope to do it on a regular basis, but I ask for your patience.  

I also ask for suggestions and corrections if need be.

With that, I welcome you to this journey, to My El Paso.