I want to talk to you about history, about our collective past, and bits of history large and small. I want to talk to you about how small pieces of our history are being uncovered at a construction site, their fates in question, while just across the street, gems of our skyline are being restored.
I want to talk about how large parts of our past are being shaken to their core, while other smaller bits are seemingly simply erased without explanation.
If you’ve been downtown at all over the last few months, you can’t miss the construction. It’s ubiquitous. One building after another is being retrofitted or brought up to code. Construction workers seem to outnumber shoppers of late. This is a good thing.
One by one, some of our most historic buildings are being saved: the Popular Dry Goods store is finally being brought up to code; the O.T. Bassett Tower is now a luxury hotel, both the Plaza and Paso Del Norte are being restored and upgraded as well.
Then, at 100 East San Antonio Street, there is a parking garage going up.
The corner of East San Antonio and South El Paso Streets was the home of the John Wesley Hardin building and the First National Bank. If you remember, back in April of 2012, there was a massive fire and both buildings were lost. With that fire, we lost large pieces of our history.
As construction workers began to dig and remove dirt, parts of our history were unearthed – seeing the light of the day for the first time in almost one hundred years. As these objects were discovered, they were taken to the Wigwam Saloon for preservation and display.
What’s been found? Some rather interesting items for sure. Some bottles have been unearthed, and old spittoon, nails, and more. I’ve been told by one of the Jordan Foster project managers that they now have a box of items they’ve unearthed. Not to mention the drive mechanism for an old freight elevator that is sitting out, exposed to the elements.
“It’s El Paso History,” says Peter Stone of the Wigwam. He’s right: these items – large and small – have historical significance attached to them.
When I look at some of the items, like the spittoon or the pitcher, I wonder who used it. Could it have been used by John Wesley Hardin? What about by members of the Schutz family? At one point, Hardin did do some legal work for them (writer’s note: I’m related to the Schutz family)
This past week, when I was speaking to Mr. Stone about what had been given to him by the construction workers, I had an encounter with Mr. Marquez, a Project Manager for Jordan Foster Construction.
During our conversation, we spoke of the artifacts the Wigwam Museum now has.
“The owner would like them back,” Mr. Marquez said, “so he can decide after the project is finished whether or not he would like to create a historical display of what has been found.”
The owner, in this case, is Mr. Paul Foster. Stone, however, feels differently about the matter.
“We can only speculate why they want them back,” says Stone. “Maybe he doesn’t want the construction site shut down for archaeologists to come in and make a proper determination.”
“It’s a shame,” said Stone, “that we’re the only city, that I can see, that doesn’t value its history. It wants to forget its past to be progressive. We are the only city along the Camino Real that doesn’t have an old town.”
Peter has a point. How many people are going to come from out of town to look at a parking garage that has a plaque on it stating that this is where the John Wesley Hardin building once stood. Consider how many people come into the Wigwam Saloon so that they can say they’ve been in the bar that Hardin was once part owner of.
Then, there’s the other side of this coin that no one is considering. The Wigwam Saloon building itself. The Wigwam is a Trost building. It was built in 1912 and was originally a gambling parlor and saloon. Eventually, it was converted to a movie theatre.
As I was talking to Peter about what is being found next door at the construction site, the building, the Wigwam was shaking.
You could feel the floor beneath you vibrating as the walls shook. This, of course, is caused by the massive equipment they are using to dig holes in the ground next door.
“I hope they don’t crack it any more than it is already,” Stone says, his voice thick with concern. “It’s already leaking in the basement.”
According to Peter, before the construction, the roof didn’t leak. Water was not leaking into the basement, and there weren’t as many cracks in the outside walls.
“This is brand new,” Peter said as he was pointing out leaks and cracks. “Ever since they started, and the building shaking from the column posts they are digging, we’ve had massive leaks.”
Something must be done. Something must be done to save what little bit of our historical buildings we have left.
“It’s something that the city can make a lucrative draw for tourists,” says Peter talking of El Paso’s history and past.
Is Peter Stone’s fear of losing our history unfounded? No, it’s not.
There are two photos attached to this story, labeled before and after, that come from the Plaza Hotel. As you can see in the before photo it looks as if a well was discovered at the Plaza Hotel. Or, maybe the entrance to one of the many underground tunnels in El Paso.
In the after photo you can see that it was removed. Why? Who, if anyone, was able to determine that it was not historic, or historically significant to the region?
Not too long-ago Paul Foster said that rebuilding Trost buildings is a “labor of love.” (Mr. Foster said this to Aaron Montes, a staff writer at El Paso Inc.)
It would be nice, for a change, for developers to sit down and talk with preservationists. No going back and forth via the media or lawyers, just a good, face to face conversation and then some sort of understanding reached. It would be refreshing.
I would like to see Paul Foster sit down with Bonnie Juarez and Peter Stone of the Wigwam. I would like for them to discuss the best way possible to preserve what is being dug up during construction, and how best to present to the people of El Paso.
They could all work together, not only to safeguard the Wigwam from further damage, but to move forward together on how best to preserve and restore that building as well.
History does not belong to one person, or a corporation; it shouldn’t be kept in a box or quickly removed or reburied. It needs to be shared, and the preservation agreed upon by all involved.
Certainly a pause of a few days or weeks, to protect decades upon decades of history would not be a bad thing – not just for us – but for the generations to follow.