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...

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