“Every one built around a dream”: The Architecture of Mabel Welch

Architectural elegance to enliven Wheeler Avenue in El Paso, Texas, courtesy of Mabel Welch.

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.

Bascom-Poe House (1940), 711 Rim Road, El Paso, Texas

Pyle House (1942), 815 Mississippi Avenue, El Paso, Texas

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.

Thompson House (1938), 1227 Rim Road, El Paso, Texas

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.

Lowenfield House (1939), 1505 Rim Road, El Paso, Texas

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.

Leigh House (1930), 2619 Altura Boulevard, El Paso, Texas

Watkins House (1929), 3001 Silver Avenue, El Paso, Texas

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.

Turner House (1929), 3009 Silver Avenue, El Paso, Texas
Harvey House (1930), 3100 Gold Avenue, El Paso, Texas

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.

“Every one built around a dream,” as the Architect Welch stated in late October of 1934.

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.