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A Little Bit of Henry C. Trost in Our Backyard : The John Muir Building

Trost

Even though Henry C. Trost died in 1933, he’s been getting a lot of press in El Paso lately. Although I’m sure he was truly an interesting fellow himself, it’s actually his magnificent creations that have been creating all the buzz around town.

Trost has always been the center of attention in El Paso – he’s known as the ‘Architect of the Southwest’ and his architecture firm, Trost & Trost, was incredibly successful during it’s existence from 1905 – 1933. Together, the Trost brothers designed hundreds of buildings all over Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Mexico and Texas.

Commercial National.jpg

Yet no place saw such a permeation in Trost architecture than El Paso, Texas. In this city alone, he built over 200 structures in his lifetime, ranging from tiny bungalows to massive, Gothic-styled skyscrapers. Many of them continue to stand today but due to poor management over the years, a considerable amount of them have had to be demolished.

He was one who let himself be known by his works, rather than his words, one who made a valid and lasting contribution to the development of this great region. His was a life of purpose and achievement, and he leaves the Southwest richer for his having lived and worked in it.”

– El Paso Times 1933

The most recent of the demolitions is a corner building situated across the Plaza de los Lagartos, and was known in recent times as the John Muir Building. This particular building was built in 1916 and was known by many names during it’s lifetime:

  • Commercial National Bank Building (1916-1918)
  • Security Bank & Trust Co. (1918-1922)
  • El Paso National Bank (1925)

Muir

{About the Land} 

After some careful research, I thought that I’d mention the land that it sat on. It carries significant historical complexity and deserves at least a mention or two. The following quote is attributed directly to Margret Smith, grand-niece to Henry C. Trost:

“The land where the Commercial National Bank is – the John T. Muir Building – was owned by Mary Woods. She was the wealthiest black woman in El Paso and an ex-slave from Missouri.

She married John Woods, who was a constable here following the Civil War and afterward conducted a grocery store.

Together they bought the little adobe house that stood at the corner of Mills, then Louis Street, and Mesa Avenue. They paid $3,500 for the house and the ground. That was around 1894.

The value of the property in 1914 was $150,000 and the plan was for a 12-story concrete and steel frame building to be erected on the site of the one time adobe house by the Commercial National Bank, to cost $150,000.

After her husband died, she declined to sell the Downtown property. She did lease the building that now stands on the site to A.W. Bittick for a period of 75 years.

Bittick is associated with the Commercial National Bank in the construction of the 12-story office and bank building. This could be another reason to save the building.”

{About the Building}

The John Muir Building was particularly special in regards to it’s construction. It was the first skeleton steel fireproof building in El Paso and furthermore, it was originally intended to be a 14 story building, rather than the 3 story that it ended up being. What happened?

“The plans are for a 14 story building as seen in the perspective drawing in the Luhrs collection. Sheets 8, 9, and 10 of the plans in the EPPL, dated April 20, 1915, revise the elevation to the three story height as built. The fact that the building was not carried out as originally planned accounts for the blunt parapet, seen in Ponsford 120, instead of the ornamental cornice one would expect in a Trost commercial building.”

I went to the El Paso Public Library to check the architectural plans out. Very beautiful…full of hand drawn detail.

{The Demolition} 

The demolition of the John Muir Building has been covered by the local media and Historical Associations extensively, so I won’t harp on that too much.

There are good sides & bad sides to every story but what I believe is that Borderplex mislead City Council into believing that there was no architectural significance left in the building to try to save.

To be fair, when the building was modernized, it looked like shit. No one knew whether the layers of plaster had ruined the features of the building. Once the demolition began and layers of old plaster were knocked off, the remnants of the Trost masterpiece shown through.

{The Aftermath}

BRICKS

I called the demolition company to make arrangements to buy some of the brick. After some haggling and a few calls later, they decided to allow me to take as many bricks as I wanted…for FREE. 

These bricks were destined for the landfill and so I’m glad we were able to snag a few before they were carted away. My crafty boyfriend will be putting great use to these after he finishes building an engine for his 1975 K5 Blazer. The plan is to build a fire pit and benches with the bricks – follow me on Instagram to keep up with that project once it starts coming into fruition!

3 thoughts on “A Little Bit of Henry C. Trost in Our Backyard : The John Muir Building”

  1. I’ve read several excellent stuff here. Certainly price bookmarking for revisiting. I surprise how much attempt you place to create such a magnificent informative web site.

  2. Thanks for the great post. My great uncle and the firm did built some outstanding downtown buildings in El Paso.

    The family and UTEP Special Collections will be putting on a “Trost Exhibit” in May 2014. We plan to have pieces of both buildings in the exhibit.

    Henrytrost.org ( check out the website).

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