Group to Re-Open Old Wigwam Theatre as a Museum

A local group that’s been leading Ghost Tours around the city is now looking to bring back a building from the dead.

Henry Flores, President of the Wigwam Museum, has been in the business of El Paso’s past for some time now.

For almost ten years, Flores and company have led tourists on ghost tours throughout the area, however it wasn’t until 2014 that the Paranormal Society moved into one of the most historic buildings in Downtown El Paso (110 E San Antonio.) But it was the loss of another historic building that spurred them on.

In 2012, a fire ripped through the building that once held the  law offices of famed gunslinger John Wesley Hardin. The loss of that building to the fire, as well as the adjacent First National Bank, that led Flores and Company to their current office.

“We decided to, because of what happened next door – the fire and everything else – to try and stop the loss of these buildings,” Flores states, surrounded by artist’s renditions of Hardin and other historic El Paso icons.

wigwam“This building – the Wigwam Saloon – is the last-standing saloon building in El Paso and it was one of the top five saloons in the Old West,” Flores adds, “the Wigwam Saloon was the place to be and we didn’t want to lose it too.”

First built in the 1880’s, the saloon and theater was to undergo a remodel and expansion project overseen by famed local architecture firm Trost & Trost in 1912.

But by November of that same year, the remodeling became a full renovation, with the building completely redone from basement to banister.

With ornate tiles and stone work, the Wigwam operated as a theater and kept on showing movies all the way through to the mid-70’s, when it was then known as the State Theater.  When the curtain finally fell, it was converted into different retail spaces.  Now, Flores and Company hope to bring new life to the entire facility.

IMAG0586“This whole deal started with the tours, and with the public’s support for the Concordia Cemetery tours and now the downtown tours, it’s really a natural progression in getting people interested in their own history via a museum.” Flores adds.

Flores adds that their goal is to have a new history museum that is interactive, educational and that shares El Paso’s history and influence in Texas. The museum will include an Old Time Photo Booth, presentations on the area’s history and more.

Just as daunting as the collection of items to be exhibited is the restoration of the building. While much of the existing structure of the original Wigwam Theatre is out in the open, the parts that made it a theater are hidden – some in plain sight.

After doing some quick remodeling of her own on the interior wall of the theater, Bonnie Juarez, the group’s treasurer, is eager to see what else is behind the drywall and stucco.

“We know that most of these buildings were converted over, sometimes quickly…so you can see the original portions peeking out…the problem is…since we don’t own the building…uncovering that is going to take time and money and help.”

Flores, Juarez and Jerry Leyva-Reynolds – volunteer and the excited archaeologist of the group – move next door to show me the task in front of them.

IMAG0572Making our way around the newly-vacated store that once held Alamo Shooter Supply, the size of the building has returned – thanks to the removal of the 10-foot-tall shelves and fixtures.

On one wall, nearly a century of progress can be seen; from the original brick to the mortar of the theater, to the stucco and drywall of the ’70’s.  A close look at the walls reveals the indentations, spaced out at even intervals, exactly where the upper floor and balcony of the theater would be.

Above, a missing acoustic tile, reveals the full height of the ceiling, vaulted and seemingly untouched for decades. A quick trip down the stairway to the basement and you see the original theater floor.

Once there, a massive gas heater dominates a corner of the basement; itself hiding a predecessor, seemingly cowering in the corner: a coal-fired furnace.

IMAG0581Here the shelves stretch the length of the basement, with old heating ducts and piping crammed into one side where the electrical boxes – as well as the old coal chute reside. There is also debris there, piled 4 feet high, but revealing some tantalizing tidbits.

A half-buried box of Life and Collier’s Magazines from the 30’s and 40’s; receipts and log books from the same time period, revealing which customers ordered the publications, and how much they owed.

And in a modern,  plastic garbage can: coal, ready to be shoveled into the forlorn heater across the room.

A square hole – about 5″ by 5″ in the middle of the floor – is a window to a much simpler and older time.  Leyva-Reynolds takes a nearby stickIMAG0580 and pushes it into the hole.

Pulling it out, it is caked with clay –  not surprising to anyone – as the Wigwam was built directly on top of one of the city’s old acequias (irrigation ditches) that crisscrossed the area in the 1800’s.

We tread lightly and pull items out delicately, but this is only a small portion of the work that needs to be done.  The group is hoping for not just the public’s help in the clean up, but for grants and donations to make the Wigwam Museum shine.

Flores says, “We have a collection of donated items, but we would like to include artifacts from the public including posters, rare items and center pieces that can teach schools about their local past…if someone has an item (or items) and would like to have an installation at our museum, we would like to meet with them.”

According to Flores, the museum should be ready to go by Summertime, again depending on the public help.

For more information on  either group, click on the hyperlinked text to the Paso Del Norte Paranormal Society, Inc (a 501(C)(3) Non-Profit Organization)  and The Wigwam Museum.