Nearly a week has passed since the Central El Paso fire that took out two historic homes; time enough for the rubble to cool down, while emotions still run red-hot. Questions outnumber answers, amidst scorched bricks and saddened preservationists.
It had to have started just before two o’clock in the morning. Maybe there was a little smoke that began to escape and invade the neighborhood. The smell, that unique smell of wood burning, maybe caught someone’s attention.
Then, there were the flames. The flames had to be close behind.
Growing flames, shining from inside the house, giving life to the stained-glass windows; their flame-lit colors dancing in the front yard. Light fixtures, silently standing guard at the front of the property, yielded their globes to the fire – the plastic bubbling and stretching towards the fire, almost as if they wanted to reach out and take the flames themselves, instead of the home.
Just after two o’clock, the first fire truck was dispatched. The first unit of twenty. Working as quickly as they could, the fire department fought that fire. Then, as fires sometimes do, it decided to move to the house next door.
No amount of water, no amount of prayers would stop this fire. It burned hot, fast, and left two historic homes in ruins.
The home at 1519 Golden Hill Terrace, also known as the Krakauer Home, was designed by Trost.
“This was one of only two or three Tudor style mansions Trost and Trost built in the city…and, really, now we only have one prominent example, and that’s in Sunset Heights,” says Malissa Arras, Executive Director of the Trost Society.
Henry C. Trost was the architect of the home that was built in 1915. It was a home that commanded a magnificent view of Downtown El Paso and was the envy of more than a few El Pasoans.
Over the years, the home saw many parties, events, and stood as a silent sentinel to our ever-changing history. The house itself was eventually converted from one residence to several apartments within the home’s footprint.
Maybe it was then, when it was converted from a private residence to a communal one, that it began to deteriorate.
“A great house,” said Robb Chavez as part of a Facebook discussion, “with the property owner allowed to deteriorate.”
“I drove by it about a month ago,” says Raul Olivas. “All the windows were broken out…such a shame to let something so nice just deteriorate.”
Deterioration seems to be the theme of historic homes and buildings here in El Paso. Too often people see these historic homes and ignore the history, the beauty, and transform them into something that does not live up to their former glory.
Another sad reality is that we, as El Pasoans, do not know the wealth of history – architectural history – that our city contains. I’ll tell you, until this home caught on fire, I didn’t even know it existed! So, I had to learn more.
In the shadow of the scorched walls, Arras met with me, to talk about the house, it’s builder, and it’s history.
“The interior of the house would have had, it still had all of its wood furnishings,” says Malissa. “In 1930 the house was partitioned for apartments. But, all the original fixtures would still be in there, all the original mouldings. There would have been stained glass. This was really built to be one of the fine mansions in what is now the Montana Historic District.”
Malissa says the home had been abandoned for some time, however everything was still in great shape.
That’s an important thing to remember, the home was abandoned.
“When we found out about the fire, we immediately started posting on Facebook, and coordinating with the Fire Department,” Malissa shares.
“There have been several fires of historic buildings in El Paso, including the First National Bank building, and another hotel building by Trost and Trost that was close to Five Points that burned recently. There had not been fire investigations done. We wanted this time to
work closely with the Fire Department to figure out what started the fire.”
According to Arras, the Fire Department has said that it would be very hard to determine the cause of this fire. Why?
“The fire was just so hot; it destroyed the entire house. So, understanding where the starting point of the fire was, or any evidence, would not have been left behind,” she says.
The Trost Society then began to solicit videos of the fire, in hopes of understanding what, and how it all happened. That request, however, led to another bit of information being shared.
“We actually heard from a neighbor who said that there were kids constantly up here vandalizing the building, having parties,” Arras shares. “And that they had called code compliance officers of the city, several times.”
I did contact the El Paso Police Department and was told that there had been six calls to the property in the last year. One was for a dog, (remember this – I’ll talk about the dog in a bit) and there were two for trespassing and the rest for criminal mischief.
When I arrived at the Krakauer Home, early Monday morning, I was shocked by the total and complete loss of this majestic home. All that stands are portions of walls, a fireplace, and a safe. Close to the house, the grounds are littered with the charred remains of wooden beams, sections of walls, and brick.
The air was pungent with the scent of charred wood.
Elsewhere on the property sat trash. Toilets near the back fence, mounds of rubble – not from the fire – and several metal drums. There are beer cans everywhere, as if the property was used as both a dumping ground as well as a party spot. Looking at the grounds, seeing all the trash left there, it had the feel of a long-neglected piece of land.
As I was taking all of this in, a man jogged past. He noticed my cameras, my press pass, and stopped to talk. Like most, he is sad to see these two houses destroyed by fire. Then, he mentioned the dogs.
Three different people, in fact, told me that they believed dogs were guarding the property, in hopes of keeping away anyone who might want to destroy the home or break-in.
The dogs, the fire, all of it led me to want to speak with the owner. That’s where things took an odd turn.
The home, according to the El Paso Central Appraisal District is owned by Leonard A. Hall, the man who used to own the 2nd Hand Store on Cotton. The only problem: Mr. Hall passed away on September 18,2012.
So, who owned the house? That simple question led me down a path of discovery that left me with more questions than answers.
I began with the Central Appraisal District records, and the name is shown under “mailing address,” Chue Ban.
The home, it turns out, is owned by “Frank” Por.
Back in 2006, Mr Hall transferred ownership to Frank, for “ten and NO/100THS DOLLARS ($10.00) and other good and valuable consideration cash in hand paid.” (Author’s note: The amount, $10 may not be the actual price paid for the home. In Texas it has been a long-standing practice to list the sale price as $10 so as not to disclose the actual price paid).
The home was transferred, as a life estate to Mr. Por. What is a life estate? A life estate deed allows a property owner to transfer ownership of a home to another individual but gives them the continued right to live in and use the home until their passing. So, in 2006 Mr Por bought the home from Mr. Hall.
I began searching out Mr. Por so that I could talk to him, about the fire, the loss of the home, the dogs, and if he, in fact, owned the home and if it was abandoned or vacant.
After sending messages via Facebook, visiting the 2nd Hand Store, and contacting mutual friends, I found out quite a few people were looking for Por, and that he may not return my call. Then, on Tuesday, June 12, Mr. Por called me back.
The first thing I asked him about was restoration work, as I was told that there was restoration work being done.
“There was a fire, previously, in 2009,” said Frank Por. “There was work done, a lot of stuff inside was new. The roofs were brand new; all the walls were new, ductwork, electrical, plumbing.”
Frank said that as fast as they were bringing things in, they were being stolen just as quickly by people who would break into the home.
“At least five times we caught kids from high school, the nearby middle high’s, they come and break windows, breaking things,” said Mr Por. “We caught them. Could easily beat them up, hurt them, or something, but I let them go. They told me, flat out, ‘Mister, there is nothing you can do, we are minors.’”
I moved our conversation over to the fire, asking if he had any idea how it started. He told me he had no idea.
“We always disconnect the main switch on the breaker, after we are done with all the work,” said Frank, ruling out the possibility of an electrical fire.
The dogs, the ones I was told that were at home, were the subject of my next question.
“At one time, there were two dogs, a mother and a little baby,” said Frank. “The mother, the female, dog had multiple litters of dogs. I even kept one full litter, nine dogs.” Frank says he took them in, fed them, cared for them until they were old enough to be given away.
“That female dog,” says Frank “about nine months ago, because we can’t get close to the female dog. You get close, and she runs. But, she’ll come back and stay at the backyard. Nine months ago, I got a call from the humane society.”
That call was one requesting Mr. Por open the gate so that the Humane Society could catch that dog.
Then, I finally decided to ask about the ownership of the home. The home, according to the El Paso CAD is still owned by Leonard A. Hall. Even though the home was sold to Mr. Por in 2006, the CAD still believed Mr. Hall owned it.
“At one time it belonged to him. He was losing his home,” said Mr Por. “At that time, in 2006, his house was in foreclosure. He asked me if I would like to live in this house, investment, whatever. He said if I would like to he would sell it.”
According to Mr. Por, he owns the house outright. When I mentioned that the CAD shows that Mr. Hall still owns the house, Mr Por told me there were a lot of complications.
“There’s a lot of complications in here. Because a lot of people like to say negative things,” says Mr. Por. “They can’t find me, so they go out there and spread rumors. During the time Leonard owned it like I told you, he had a fire. The loan was under his name. Of course, we do paperwork so that my name was added to the mortgage so that I could take over the payments.”
So, in 2006, Mr. Por took over the home. Lock, stock and barrel, it was his home. Even though the City of El Paso believed the home was still owned by Leonard Hall, Frank Por was the owner.
Mr. Por explained to me that three years into the repair work, from the fire in 2009, Mr Hall became ill. At that point, Por alleges, the contractor began to slow down repairs.
“So, he didn’t finish the work,” said Por. “Then, of course, he filed a lawsuit, and we had to defend the lawsuit. And it was supposed to be done this month, in June. All this time, this is the reason why we didn’t do too much work.”
Por says that’s why they have not done much work on the home. All the monies he would receive, for the most part, were going to defend the lawsuit.
Now, keep in mind, my question why Mr. Por never transferred ownership of the home to his name. As a point of interest, the lawsuit was filed in May 2013, after Mr Hall passed away. You can click here to listen to my call with Mr. Por.
I wanted to know why the name of the owner was not changed after the sale, or even after the passing of Mr Hall. I found out that this is a common practice. I spoke with Gregory Martin, an attorney with the Law Office of Kemp Smith, to find out why someone would do this.
“You should do it. Do you have to do it? You don’t have to, but it’s going to create other problems down the road, particularly if you try to sale the home,” says Gregory Martin. “Normally, why don’t you transition the title? Depending on the person’s age, the original owner may have been receiving a senior discount on property taxes, a homestead exemption. Does the new owner qualify for the exemptions? If
not, then the owner may not have been paying the correct property taxes, so whenever it does switch over, there could be a bit of a headache with the property taxes.”
That seems to be the case here.
The home, according to the El Paso CAD has an appraised value of $146,620. The current property tax is listed as $4,339.52. There are exemptions on the home. There is the homestead exemption, the taxes for the El Paso Independent School District is frozen at just under
one-thousand dollars. So, all together, the amount of tax, with current exemptions is $2898.62
The same holds true, without the exemptions, for the property the 2nd Hand Store occupies on Cotton Street. The property owner is still listed as Leonard A. Hall, and no one else. Yet, a search of the county assumed names list shows the 2nd Hand store is owned by Ban Chue Por, or as he is also known by, Frank Por.
I did speak with Dinah Kilgore, Executive Director of the El Paso Central Appraisal District. According to Ms. Kilgore, they El Paso CAD works hard to determine when property changes hands, either though a sale or after the passing of the homeowner. In the case of death, when obituaries still listed a home address, it was easier to track this down.
Today, not so much.
Today they look out for changes of address for the owner, in the case of the Krakauer Home, they have already prepared a letter, for Mr. Por, informing him that the exemptions on the home are going removed.
“We can go back five years and back assess the estate because they did not notify us,” says Ms Kilgore. “And there are penalties and interest applied to that.”
At the end, we’ve lost a small piece of our collective history. This home cannot be restored. There’s nothing left, save a few walls, and more questions than answers.
Knowing that the El Paso CAD may be going after some, not all, of the monies owed the City/County does not offer much relief but may serve as a warning to others.
What’s the warning? If you own a historic property, don’t leave it vacant; don’t let your property become a place where people feel free to leave trash everywhere. Not only does that devalue the home and those around it, it simply invites more trash and even more trouble.
The last lesson is best stated by Barbara Given-Behne. Barbara has a family connection to the home. Robert Krakauer was Barbara’s great uncle.
“This is another huge reminder that our city officials need to work to prevent losses like this in the future,” said Barbara.
Ownership documents below Gallery \ All Photos by Steven Cottingham, El Paso Herald-Post