Architecture in the Land of Dry Heat (Take One)

Many notable buildings are worthy of preservation in Arid America. Public buildings that attend to our civic responsibilities occupy squares and intersections of the vast region’s towns and cities, often rising majestically as temples of justice and education. Sometimes a county courthouse, sometimes a post office, sometimes a high school, but almost always an edifice worthy of the people who saw to its introduction into their midst. Residences likewise define the blocks created by the imposition of the grid on the Earth’s surface so that we can as tidily as possible build our settlements. On the raw frontier of late Nineteenth Century Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the ceaseless construction of railroads connected Arid America to the Pacific Coast, the Eastern United States, and, in the grander scheme, to markets in foreign countries, accessible in part over those iron rails to seaside harbors where goods could be shipped abroad. Some of the more impressive buildings in this region owe their existence to faraway capital that manifested into an architectural expression of prosperity and success.

Across a wide swath of land extending between Doña Ana County, New Mexico, to Terrell County, Texas, stand ample examples of the Mother Art. Fret not if you are of a mind that the region I am defining is far too constricted and limited. Rather, I am responding to the practicalities of the photographs that accompany this little missive – as I often say, “If you’re gonna talk about architecture, you gotta show ‘em pretty pictures.” Assembled herewith these sparse words is a little gallery of buildings a wayfarer can easily find in a meaningful sojourn through the region if’n you’re willing to exit the interstate highway and take another road, as the great Jimmy Buffett would say. I’ve driven not a few off-the-beaten-path roads just to have a look at a building that strikes me as imbuing some great historical or architectural significance, an odd obsession which has given me something akin to Captain Buffett’s sentiment “these moments we’re left with / may you always remember / these moments are shared by few.” For me, I find inexplicable value in carefully regarding the monumental works of public art that dot the landscape and in mute testimony convey a sense of time and place.

So today’s lineup consists of a wide-ranging gamut of buildings that tell a diversity of stories. Whether filed under “architecture without architects” or whether representing works embodying great technical skill and design creativity, the built environment of Arid America expresses the rich history of this land. Spanish traces are evident in the mission church at Ysleta del Sur with its silver dome, and in the magnificent, yet humble, church in Doña Ana, New Mexico, alongside the camino real that connected Mexico City to Santa Fe. Within the bounds of Big Bend National Park, a solitary adobe standing between an acequia and the Rio Grande juxtaposes with the white-plastered “palatial” residence overlooking the village of Boquillas on the river’s banks. The small details of a building ought to be really looked at to appreciate the great works as well as the more mundane ones; to wit, the brickwork on the second floor of the old El Paso Times building and the emblem painted on the old Coca-Cola Bottling Plant in Alpine, Texas. Slow down when you’re in Sanderson, Texas, to have a close look at the Terrell County Courthouse, the old Kerr’s Department Store, the bas-relief artwork above the front entrance to Sanderson High School, and the brick commercial buildings near the Southern Pacific railroad. In Sierra Blanca, Texas, the Hudspeth County Courthouse is unique among the 254 such temples of justice in Texas as it is the only one constructed of adobe bricks. In the window of another courthouse, the federal building in downtown El Paso, reflects the front elevation of the church across the street. In an artistic sense, the postcard of Henry C. Trost’s El Capitan Hotel in Van Horn reminds us that the town is the gateway to Big Bend National Park to the south and to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park to the north. Well to the northwest of Van Horn in El Paso stands Trost’s Gateway Hotel that, along with the El Capitan, was part of a hotel chain in southern New Mexico and West Texas that provided travelers comfort courtesy of the architect’s thoughtful design. And then you have four residences of great aesthetic value, each designed by very talented architects. Mabel Welch’s creativity and understanding of cultural history is evident in her design language for the residences on Rim Road and Gold Avenue in El Paso, while Trost exhibits comparable skill in his design for the Holt residence in Las Cruces. But in my humble assessment, the grandest, most fully articulated concept of any home in Arid America is the Prairie Style residence Henry C. Trost designed for himself. Many miles separate Oak Park, Illinois, and El Paso, Texas, but in this one small, but highly significant, instance, these two places intertwine. Lastly, as you flip through the pretty pictures, you will see a white-plastered long adobe. Its viga ends and canales are plainly visible on the front elevation, while it is inescapable to note the failing plaster on one of the building’s short ends. Appearances are deceiving; that building is the stuff of legends, for it is the old El Paso County jail in San Elizario when that little Texas town was the seat of a county that was bounded by the Rio Grande, the New Mexico line, and the Pecos River. And just for the hell of it, I would be remiss if I neglected to note that ol’ Billy Bonney broke into that jail one dark night to spring a compadre of his before making tracks north to New Mexico.

On the occasion of Historic Preservation Month across the United States, I offer this bit of local history. Since May 1973, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has encouraged Americans to value, appreciate, and care for their buildings and their past. In my own small way, herein is a contribution to that Grand Design.

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