There is a spot, in downtown El Paso, where there have been rooftop parties, where taggers have dared to paint their names for all to see. A spot where one can find photo after photo on Instagram showing people drinking on the roof or going in and out of the building after hours.
I’m talking about the Popular Department Store – now home to the Fallas Discount Store, in downtown El Paso.
When I see these photos or hear these stories, I become angry, like Hulking-out and wringing someone’s neck angry.
I wonder why Fallas has not taken the time, or initiative, to secure the building. I must also ask why they would allow a historic building to fall into disrepair, allowing seemingly anyone into (and on top of) the historic building.
It gets to me because, like Barbara Given-Behne, I am related to the family that started the Popular.
There seems to be a certain kind of antipathy or aversion towards maintaining historic properties and buildings in El Paso. The owners of these buildings, as well-intentioned as they may be, don’t seem to take preservation seriously.
Then again, when the Vacant Building Task Force reaches out to them and establishes a time frame in which they must correct issues, it’s not taken seriously either.
What’s even sadder is when we lose one of these buildings to carelessness, calousness, greed or just apathy.
“We would be losing a treasure,” says Stuart Schwartz, great-grandson of Adolf Schwartz, and son of Edward Schwartz. “Furthermore, our great grandfather would be turning over in his grave,”
As you read this past week, the Popular Dry Goods Building, or the Fallas building, had to be evacuated and closed.
Why? First, the inspectors detected a smell that was indicative of an electrical fire. The other reason? The building’s owners didn’t follow agreed upon steps to fix the problems.
Before we talk about today’s issues, let’s take a hop back in time, just over 100 years ago.
The Popular, a Trost building, located at 301 East San Antonio, is both historic and special for several reasons. The Popular was founded, in 1902, by Adolf Schwartz, a Hungarian who not only opened this store but had two others as well.
In 1917, Adolf Schwartz transformed what was then a general store into a major, and very modern department store located at San Antonio and Mesa.
The Popular was one of the first local stores to offer a credit card, was the first store in El Paso to hire an African-America – and that was unheard of at the time – and was the only local store with an infirmary for employees and their families.
If that wasn’t enough, Adolf Schwartz would also make lunch and serve it to all his employees.
“It was the dream of sixteen-year-old Hungarian boy who came to chase the American dream,” said Barbara Given-Behne, great-granddaughter of Adolf Schwartz, advocate for preservation and historian.
“In my opinion,” says Barbara, “what would we lose if the building were torn down? We would lose 110 years of integrity. You would lose years upon years of integrity.”
Integrity, keeping your word. Doing your job. Fulfilling promises. It’s what the Popular was built on.
In July of 2016, Michael Fallas told Vic Kolenc of the El Paso Times that he wanted to restore the building, to its “original glory” – just like he did with another historic building housing a Fallas store in Los Angeles.
Officials say that restoration never happened. Neither did any of the work Fallas agreed to do after city inspections.
Our source, a member of the Vacant Building Task Force who did not want to be named, shared his frustration when dealing with these situations. (Ed. Note: our source’s quotes will be italicized for easier designation in this article.)
The Vacant Building Task Force (VBTF) are the investigators on the ground, setting the milestones and inspecting the buildings, while Vacant Building Commission (VBC) is tasked with the hearings, holding building owners to account.
“What ended up happening, it kept going to the Vacant Building Commission, and what was recommended, but we didn’t have the authority to do was require they have a project manager.”
The project manager would have been the point of contact to get things scheduled, and get repairs going. The owner, Michael Fallas refused. The project manager would have given the VBC a point of contact for questions, progress and reports.
“The owner refused and said their attorney would handle everything,”
The problem was, the attorney was only a middleman. So, when anyone from the VBC would call, the attorney would have to track down the people hired to do the work, and then get answers. This method simply didn’t work.
“We called them [Fallas] before the Board, to find out where they were at, and they were nowhere near where they should have been.”
The VBC has given Fallas a series of repairs to be made. These were broken down into 30-, 60-, and 90-day time frames.
“At the first meeting, they should have been at point ‘a.’ When we did the 30-day, they should have had steps done. They should have set up an appointment to get the sprinkler and fire alarms inspected. Contract with a company to do an environmental study which would be for the mold and asbestos. Three, to start working with an architect and a structural engineer to start laying out the floors.”
All they had, at the thirty-day mark, was an architect. They claimed to have someone for the environmental study, but had yet to pay any of the fees or costs associated with that work.
“So then, we had scheduled a 60-day meeting. Something happened, so they delayed it to the 90-day meeting.”
When they reached that 90-day meeting, the VBC was going to address the 60-day objectives, but Fallas had yet even to meet the goals set for the first 30-days.
“We had to extend it and made a special meeting at the end of August. That put them at 120 days, and they weren’t anywhere near the 60-day mark.”
When members of the Vacant Building Task Force would reach out to the Fallas’ attorney, all he could say was they [Fallas] would not tell them who they hired or give any information.
“The attorney wasn’t paying the bills, and they [Fallas] were giving their attorney the runaround. He was basically at the point where he was saying he was done.”
The VBC gave Fallas time to correct stated issues, and they understood the challenge. The Popular building is big – it’s essentially three buildings. A building that big, with all the work that has been done over the last twenty years, much of it without a permit, it was going to take time.
“The City and Fire Department had agreed that if they don’t move to this point, we would have to do an eviction.”
What the VBC did was break the needed repair work down into three sections. The thinking behind this was that it would make it easier for Fallas to comply.
As we learned this week, they didn’t comply with what was required to bring the building up to a safe standard.
“We told them, look get the apartments done. Get the mold situated and abated. Get the store area fixed, that’s the part that is occupied. Then, work on getting the unoccupied part cleaned up. They were all over the place. One of the inspectors had gone in there. Nothing had been done; no one knew anything.”
It was then that the VBC had discovered that the tenants, in the apartments, fed up with the lack of progress, simply moved out. However it was not only the lack of progress, but crime as well.
I spoke with one man who claimed that someone was kicking in doors and then held him at knifepoint.
And then there was the fire.
“They went in and found some sort of electrical short that had started a fire,” I was told. It’s unclear if the fire was even reported to the El Paso Fire Department.
That electrical fire could have been much worse. It could have been the reason another Trost building was destroyed. With the current state of the electrical panels, that fear of fire is still present.
“When our electrical inspector went in and was looking at it [the electrical panels], normally you see electrical panels, and it’s pretty cut and dry what it’s going to cover. An electrician will come in and label what circuits go to what. But when he went in there, one service panel maybe serviced two floors or part of one floor. It’s like it was put in after the fact, and the electrician never labelled what it was for.”
When the Popular was built, wiring and electrical systems were much different. Wires from that time were covered in cloth. Over time that begins to dry out, break down. Or, as is also the case with the Popular building, rodents would chew on the wires, or leaking water would cause the cloth to deteriorate.
Inspectors say that both the rodents and water leaks are ever-present within the Popular building as it stands today.
“When Union went in, they made their upgrades. They did what they could, but only to the levels they occupied. So, parts of the building may not even be up to code from the 1950’s when the additions were made.”
The Vacant Building Task Force gave Michael Fallas every chance to repair the issues within the Popular building. Extension after extension, chance after chance.
“We tried to give them a chance. If you think about we gave them a lot more time than some of the other places we’ve been doing, but only because we realized it was a historic structure and we had a tenant that actually had the money to do something about it. It would be a good chance for somebody to turn around one of those downtown properties.”
Then, Michael Fallas filed for bankruptcy. The hope of any repair began to fade.
“We hoped the Fallas would show a property owner could get a building turned around. That’s what they had promised.”
Back to what Barbara said earlier: integrity.
I agree with Barbara. When I worked at the Popular, in housewares, I learned quite a bit about integrity and how to treat customers. I learned that for many the staff of the Popular were friends.
At other times, like family. It was a store that gave me, and countless others, a chance at chasing our dreams, reach our goals.
Losing that building, losing the symbol that is attached to what many of us have learned, it would leave an empty spot within all of us, within the city of El Paso.
That building may represent something different to you, but to Barbra, me and countless other former employees and customers, this is what it stands for.
As for the process, in this case, the system worked. The Vacant Building Task Force did their job. They identified the problems with the Popular Dry Goods building and began to work with the owner to correct them.
No columns of smoke pouring from the roof, no scorched windows or blackened ruins silently pleading their case to passersby. A building saved, in spite of it’s owners promises.
In the end, repairs must still be made. Electrical systems must be brought up to code. Restoration and preservation must be done.
Integrity, keeping your word. Doing your job. Fulfilling promises. It’s not just for the history books, it’s still applies today.
As the story with the Popular Dry Goods building continues to unfold, I will be bringing you updates.
Do you have any stories or photos of the Popular you would like to share? If so, please send them my way. You can email them to me at Steven@EPHeraldPost.com
Other historic properties lost to preventable fires:
The Trost Home on Golden Hill Terrace | The Harding Building and Neighboring First National Bank
Photos in gallery courtesy Schwartz/Zork family