By Max Grossman, Ph.D
In spring 2009 I flew to El Paso, Texas, to interview for an entry-level professorship at the University of Texas. As an architectural historian, I was curious about the historic core of El Paso, whose origins could be traced back to the Spanish colonial period, and my hosts were more than happy to oblige. During our walk around San Jacinto Plaza and along El Paso Street, I was amazed at the quality and beauty of the commercial architecture, most of which dates to the first decades of the 20th century when El Paso rapidly transformed from a rough and dusty frontier town into a major metropolitan center of industry and commerce. I was struck, however, by the great number of abandoned and neglected buildings. Despite their incredible potential, it was apparent that these historic structures, which had been built of the finest materials and embellished with ornate cornices and moldings, could not survive in this condition for long before they would have to be demolished out of necessity.
Only two months after moving to El Paso and starting my new academic career, I began attending El Paso County Historical Commission meetings. The county appointed me a commissioner, and I soon formed an Architectural Preservation Committee consisting of professionals with expertise in architecture, planning, history, and statutory law. We began a conversation about historic preservation and turned our attention to the municipal code that regulates the demolition and modification of buildings in El Paso’s local Downtown Historic District, which includes several properties on the National Register of Historic Places. We quickly realized that the code—poorly written and riddled with loopholes and redundancies—offered little protection for even the city’s most significant architecture. By contrast, other Texas cities, like San Antonio and Galveston, had laws and strategies in place that encouraged the restoration of hundreds of downtown buildings, and their tourism was booming as a result.... Read More →