With its provocative collection of modern artwork and avant-garde furnishings, El Paso’s Stanton House could be mistaken for a museum. The 42-room boutique hotel, replete with a spa featuring sensory deprivation float tanks, made local headlines for its $300-a-night rooms when it debuted nearly three years ago (rates now start at around $200). “We do have some art that’s going to . . . test people’s preconceptions,” co-owner Miguel Fernandez says as he gives me a sneak peek at a piece that will adorn the new basement speakeasy, slated to open this fall.
Fernandez, who grew up in the area, isn’t the only hotelier with ambitious plans for El Paso. The recent reopenings of the renovated Hotel Paso del Norte and the Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park, both historical marvels that fell into disrepair and cost tens of millions of dollars to restore, have helped to establish the city as a heritage travel destination as well as a design hub. With these and efforts from the community and local preservation groups, El Paso appears to be taking steps to reclaim recognition as an architectural and design hub, not unlike Chicago. Outsiders seem to be taking notice, too: the Texas Society of Architects will hold its annual convention and expo in El Paso in October 2022.
A number of El Paso’s hotels are architectural gems—both Paso del Norte and the Plaza were designed by the late Henry Trost, a prolific architect who erected much of the city’s skyline in the early 1900s—that draw on the area’s convergence of Western, Native, and Mexican cultures. What makes these projects particularly unusual is the way historical flourishes, such as Paso del Norte’s 25-foot Tiffany-esque stained glass dome, are preserved alongside contemporary touches. Even the Stanton House, a modern hotel not designed by Trost, aims to merge El Paso’s past and present in its offerings: its mid-century furniture calls to mind the former showroom it sits in, and its standout restaurant Taft-Díaz immortalizes the 1909 summit between U.S. president William Howard Taft and Mexican president Porfirio Díaz in its menu, a combination of American and Mexican dishes.
Much of El Paso’s stunning architecture, ranging from gothic five-and-dimes to Bhutanese-inspired academic buildings, has its roots in the city’s exponential growth during the early twentieth century. Thousands of immigrants settled here following unrest in the Mexican Revolution, and industries such as smelting and mining soon took off. Trost set up his architectural firm in 1903 and went on to design over three hundred buildings in El Paso, many of them downtown. From local high schools to tony buildings, including Paso del Norte (known as the “million dollar hotel” when it opened, in 1912), Trost’s structures were, in addition to being aesthetically significant, architecturally important, given how he built them to withstand the area’s desert climate.
That’s why many turn-of-the-century Trost-designed structures still stood throughout the eighties, albeit a little worse for wear. But downtown El Paso took a financial hit when the Mexican peso lost value in the next decade. After that, along with the decline of El Paso Natural Gas in the early aughts, downtown suffered and many buildings were abandoned. That also meant visitors didn’t have many places to stay when they passed through El Paso for business. A chain hotel was the best option downtown for many years, says Fernandez. “It really didn’t show what this community was all about.”
William Helm, a local architect involved in several historic restorations, including that of the Plaza Hotel, says locals turned their attention to renovating downtown buildings in 2006, when the Plaza Theatre reopened after a $38 million renovation funded by the El Paso Community Foundation and the city. Rescued mere weeks from demolition, the spectacular Spanish Colonial–style theater, once the largest of its kind anywhere from Missouri to California, holds an annual film festival and is home to one of just six Mighty Wurlitzer organs in the world. “They literally saved it from the wrecking ball,” says Helm. “It was the high-water mark where we almost lost a building entirely that would have been a tragic loss to El Paso’s historic fabric.” A major donor to the Plaza Theatre restoration, local billionaire Paul Foster, soon bought several empty buildings in the area, including the dilapidated Plaza Hotel and the Anson Mills Building.
The revamping of downtown El Paso has not been without controversy, though. The same year the Plaza Theatre reopened, a cohort of private-sector magnates dubbed the Paso Del Norte Group unveiled a downtown plan that proposed erecting shops, a new hotel, and a sports stadium that also would raze El Segundo Barrio, a longstanding Hispanic neighborhood whose proximity to entry points from Mexico earned it the nickname “the other Ellis Island.” (The initiative became the subject of bitter disagreement and protests and eventually fizzled out.) Then, voters green-lit a $473 million city revitalization bond in 2012, some of which was allocated to build a multipurpose arena. The city plans to build this sports stadium in another historic downtown neighborhood, Duranguito, but construction has been halted for now by members of the community. It likely won’t be the last fight as developers continue to buy up old buildings in the area and envision new plans for them. Still, there’s optimism among some locals that more attention toward historic projects means El Paso will support thoughtful preservation practices that benefit both newcomers and the community.
In the meantime, downtown’s architectural gems, dining options, and fascinating past make it well worth the drive or flight from other corners of the state.
Dine + Drink
In the morning, head to Savage Goods, an airy coffee shop serving refreshing takes on breakfast classics such as avocado toast (topped with pepitas, microgreens, sesame seeds, and roasted tomato discs) and hearty green chili burritos. Or try the brunch at bustling Salt + Honey, in the central Five Points area—don’t miss the cafe’s namesake salty-sweet latte. For lunch, L&J Café, also in Five Points, is a popular standby for Mexican comfort dishes, including mole enchiladas; get there early or be prepared to wait. If you’re hankering for something on the meatier side, beeline toward Desert Oak Barbecue, a diminutive strip mall joint that does it all well: soft threads of pulled pork doused with a vinegary Carolina sauce, green chile cheese rice, mighty cuts of tender brisket, and peppery smoked turkey. Downtown dinner options range from casual local brews and hearty bar fare at DeadBeach Brewery to the inventive Mexican eatery Elemi, whose blue corn tortillas, nixtamalized in-house daily, are the sumptuous backbone of many dishes here, including a decadent quesabirria and a campesino taco laden with tender spears of eggplant and mushroom. Enjoy a nightcap at La Perla, the Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park’s dazzling rooftop bar, located in the former penthouse where Elizabeth Taylor lived during her oh-so-short marriage to hotel heir Nicky Hilton.
Pick up gifts at Montecillo, a mixed-use development north of the University of Texas at El Paso where sellers hawk trinkets, T-shirts, novelty socks, records, and other goods in individual shipping-container shops. To experience the future of traditional El Paso bootmaking, pop into downtown’s Rocketbuster Handmade Custom Boots, an eccentric outfit renowned for its craftsmanship and colorful designs inspired by everything from Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art to outer space.
See + Do
To learn more about El Paso’s history, take an architectural walking tour of downtown or nearby El Segundo Barrio, both home to some of the city’s most significant buildings, organized by preservation groups such as the Trost Society. At the El Paso Museum of History, a trove of permanent and revolving exhibits serves as a good primer on the region’s early days and its distinctive communities. Join the joggers, bikers, and dog-walkers on the easily manageable Lost Dog Trail, near Franklin Mountains State Park, thirteen miles north of downtown.
In addition to the Stanton House, Hotel Paso del Norte, and the Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park, downtown options include the Gardner Hotel, a haunt with antique furnishings and plenty of local lore, and the sleek Hotel Indigo, with a rooftop pool overlooking the city.
An abbreviated version of this article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “What’s Old Is New Again in El Paso.” Subscribe today.