Architectural richness abounds in Arid America, and in honor of its built environment, the architect Mabel Clair Vanderburg Welch (1890-1981) deserves consideration for her prodigious body of creative work whose legacy enriches the borderlands and beyond. From the late 1920s through the early 1950s, Mabel Welch designed and built numerous residences in El Paso and throughout the greater region, including Ciudad Chihuahua and Ciudad Juárez in northern Mexico; Deming and Las Cruces in New Mexico; and Marfa, Fabens, and Dallas in the Lone Star State. Twelve and a half years ago, on the occasion of her introduction into the Hall of Honor of the El Paso County Historical Society, her son and grandson journeyed from their homes on the Pacific coast in Washington and California to attend the event, and during their visit to El Paso, these two gentlemen sat with several of us for an interview at the Burges House in Sunset Heights to discuss the architectural legacy and heritage she provided to El Paso and throughout the big country. During that enlightened conversation, a picture emerged of Mabel Welch as a person, not just a name behind the residences she designed.
Some few months prior to sitting around that elegant wooden table to interview her son and grandson, I had arrived in El Paso from Fort Worth to begin a new chapter in my career whereby I could rely upon my background in History, English, and Historic Preservation. Fate and good fortune offered me the opportunity to live and work in the Chihuahuan Desert, and for the first time since 1983 I found myself in the shadow of the Franklin Mountains. Soon, I was emersed in a professional and personal journey to learn as much as I could about the architectural heritage of El Paso, a place where many years earlier its landscape was shaped by successive generations of hardy denizens.
Once, small thatched wikiups lined the banks of the Rio Grande, which later gave way to adobe houses and later still to buildings constructed of brick, reinforced concrete, and steel. Clearly, much had changed to the built environment at the Pass of the North since the Iberians arrived in the Sixteenth Century, perhaps as much as three centuries after native wanderers discovered this stretch of the great river and began to settle along its life-giving banks. In short time upon my arrival on the border, as the warmth of the sun illuminated my mind with a growing understanding about the landscape’s architectural heritage, I was amazed about the extent that the firm of Trost & Trost Architects shaped downtown El Paso. The firm’s role in modernizing the border city was clearly prevalent and indisputable.
While Henry Charles Trost (1860-1933) remains a bright luminary as an architect in Arid America whose far-reaching shadow hangs heavy in the brilliant air, one should not conclude that his legacy has created an umbra which obscures all other architects whose imprint characterizes El Paso. Such a view is an oversimplification and hardly acceptable. Rather, pioneer architects in El Paso such as George Edward King (1850-1912) and Edward Kneezell (1854-1926) imported architectural languages to the border shortly after Chinese and Irish laborers hammered the final spikes of the Southern Pacific’s iron rails from Doña Ana County, Territory of New Mexico, into El Paso. Later, in the 1920s and well into the mid-century, architects such as Otto Thorman (1887-1966) and Percy McGhee (1889-1971) designed many buildings throughout El Paso and in the region, works that greatly contributed to the aesthetics of the natural landscape. Though newly arrived in El Paso in 2007 and recognizing the enormity to learn all I could about the Pass City’s architectural heritage, I was unexpectedly delighted for the introduction to works by Mabel Welch.
In my brief time in El Paso prior to the interview with her son and grandson, I had gained a little bit of familiarity with residences she had designed in the Manhattan Heights neighborhood, which in 1981 was designated a historic district, and along Rim Road overlooking downtown El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. I had wandered about these two areas of town to soak in their character and spirit in the aspiration of gleaning some sense of place previously unknown to me. These John Brinckerhoff Jackson-inspired peregrinations provided moments of thoughtful repose, fleeting moments to gaze and think about all these corners of the larger cultural landscape spread over the sandy land. Looking at one residential work of hers after another I relished the minor details in her approach to the design language of architecture. On a personal note, I also began to understand a little of the lessons my mentor, Dr. Michael Anthony Jones, spoke about in his lectures in the College of Architecture at Texas Tech University. I was seeing her houses, not just looking at them – a significant distinction. Although I had graduated, I sensed my education had just begun as I walked about neighborhoods in El Paso in search of her aesthetic beauty. And like a Troggs song, it was all around – and it was something extraordinary.
But back to the aforementioned conversation at the Burges House as November began in 2008. For an hour or two, those of us around the table spoke and laughed, pondered and lamented about the life and work of a creative and thoughtful woman and how she had done so much to transform the aesthetic character of many El Paso streets, let alone her numerous other works elsewhere in Arid America. I listened, I asked questions, I wrote notes, and yet in the end I felt incomplete because, just like Robert Earl Keen Jr., there was so much more I wanted to know. All that I had learned on that day and in the days before resembled Hemingway’s iceberg, and I sensed that Ambrose Bierce truly held court and prevailed with his observation that “there’s nothing new under the sun, but there’s a lot we haven’t discovered yet.” Suffice it to say, when we concluded our interview, I truly felt conflicted. Despite what I had heard, I was left with more questions than answers, and in the intervening days I’ve squinted with the researcher’s eyes to piece in the mystery, and, frankly, the search continues. Mabel Welch and her place in Arid America deserves much more attention than I’ve short-shrifted here, so the story shall continue down the line hasta mañana.