(Photos courtesy of Preservation Texas and El Paso Development News.)
During our most recent “Toast to Trost” pub-crawl, we had the honor or leading a group of 75 people through the soon to be renovated O.T. Basset Tower. As the warm orange glow of the desert sun cast long shadows over the sparsely populated downtown streets, I looked through an open window on the eighth floor at the eager crowd amassed at the buildings elaborate entrance. A cool wind blew through the vacant room, carrying with it small chips of paint that clung lazily to the empty walls. I had never stepped foot in the tower until the night prior, I remember the palpable sense of excitement as I crossed the threshold of the sidewalk onto the dark tile of the lobby. To consider that we were about to give an enthusiastic gathering of El Pasoans the same sense of adventure was somewhat stirring. As we admired the breeze and the view, I contemplated the possibility of new life that would fill the forgotten space in the years to come. We were granted a window to the realities which once occupied the corridors and silent rooms, and soon the walls around us would have brand new stories to tell.
The Basset Tower has been given a second chance to become a part of history; the same opportunity may not be available to some of downtown’s other iconic buildings. As revealed in a recent article published by El Paso Inc. titled “City Attacks Unsafe Buildings,” author Robert Grey addresses the dire state of three of El Paso’s most revered edifices. The Caples, Kress, and American Furniture buildings have taken on identities that pale in comparison to the vibrant atmosphere they once fostered. Pictures featured in the article paint a sense of dystopian neglect. Animal carcasses, mountains of bird droppings, and trash seemingly intentionally piled underneath threatening frayed electrical lines color the equally disparaging article. Pieces of our history may be incinerated before their modern potential is realized.
William D. Abraham owns all three of these locations, but Juliann Smith is currently managing his assets. Despite these findings, she reassures citizens that the fate of these buildings is in good hands “With people like (city architect) Laura Foster assisting property owners to get their buildings up to standard rather than hung up in appeals court, downtown El Paso has the best chance for true revival.” This marks the latest in a six-year effort to bring El Paso’s historic buildings up to code, the effort has not been without success. As the article notes “a building owned by Abraham at 101 N. Mesa that was vacant, and the site of a murder in 2014, is now occupied by a shop that sells prom and wedding dresses”. Given the exterior character of the properties in question, the possibilities for future businesses are endless.
Although the message conveyed is disappointing, the first step in fixing a problem is recognizing that there is one. The fire department seems adamant in making this happen as quickly as possible. Arson investigator Nicholas Torres commented on this in an email featured in the article “Between us and the city we will basically (be) going block by block every month till the problems are fixed and then go back again to make sure and then again… They are just exhausted with downtown, but this is what is going to be the norm…” Hopefully, this marks the first step in seeing further revitalization downtown. In the article, Grey states that the photos have “the feel of a zombie apocalypse movie;” perhaps the push towards compliance will bring these buildings back to life.
-Christopher Gonzalez, 2016