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Kern Place Neighborhood: The Man Behind the Name
By Alicia Magruder and Gretchen Dickey
It was once thought to be too far out of town to consider moving to, but the borders of Kern Place have never changed from Mesa Street to Boston/Robinson to Piedmont and Mesita, where manicured lawns and red painted steps halt time and remind adults of childhood and the good old days. Like nearly a century before, children careen down the streets on bicycles, fly kites, throw baseballs in Madeline Park and climb old trees.
Rather than being defined by the man whose name it bears, Kern Place was and is distinguished by the residents who moved in one by one to live in Peter Kern's neighborhood.
Peter Kern was the man with a vision for Kern Place (see cover). He was best known as a promoter, a businessman, a philosopher and a traveler. Gregarious, he was a short, stocky man who paid no attention to rules. He had an interest in astrology and mysticism, often giving unsolicited personal horoscopes to people he encountered. It was not uncommon to be handed one of his lucky coins resembling 50 cent pieces. Bearing Indian symbols, these coins of brass and copper were said to be "magical" by Kern.
Peter Kern first came to El Paso in 1881 when he was in his early twenties. He saw El Paso as a growing city with great opportunity, especially since the railroad had just arrived. He began a jewelry store that became quite successful in a town of saloons, brothels and gambling houses. One of his customers gives us a clue to El Paso's economy in the late 1880s.
Image caption: This receipt from Kern's jewelry shows that notorious El Paso madam Alice Abbott bought a pair of $600 diamond earrings in 1889. Courtesy of the Carol and Michael Bernstein Collection.
While in the jewelry business, Kern began to purchase a considerable amount of land around El Paso, including an undeveloped northwest mesa of sandy hills. While Kern enjoyed great success early on, soon he would run into a slew of misfortunes.
Within 10 years of arriving in El Paso, he lost his once successful jewelry business, and then his wife and daughter abandoned him. Left bankrupt and alone, Kern packed his belongings and headed to the gold rush in Alaska. There, he opened another jewelry store and struck it rich again.
With $50,000 cash in his pockets, Kern returned to El Paso to find that his property had cleared his financial obligations during his absence. He had lost everything but the sandy hilled mesa, which had become more valuable over the 10 years he was in Alaska. Kern, being a good businessman, immediately designed a plan for what would be known as Kern Place.
Kern looked to W. I. Rider, an engineer originally from Rochester, N.Y., to develop the plans for the subdivision in 1914. According to the late Marie S. Bonorden, an acquaintance of the engineer, Rider visited Kern Place 20 years later and stated that he was not happy with the layout of the streets, and "had he then foreseen the universal use of the automobile, he would never have curved the streets" which he considered "dangerous."
Although the demand for homes in Kern Place is high today, the newly developed subdivision took several years to fill with residents. Sugar Goodman, who lives on Cincinnati Avenue in the family home her father built in 1925, said that as new residents, her dad would stand in his front yard and hit golf balls as far as he could because there were so few homes in the area.
All of the homes in the neighborhood are unique in design, in contrast to today's cookie-cutter homes in other parts of town. Some of the homes were built by the residents themselves. One of the better known homes is located at 1201 Cincinnati Ave. above Madeline Park, made of rock gathered from the area. It is known as "The Castle" and features round walls and a crenellated rooftop.
In a Password article, former Kern resident, David W. Tappan, recalls a family living in a one-room house while building a two-story home of their own design. "Mr. Trevz would take his wheelbarrow northward on Kansas Street, which ended abruptly a half block away, and trek out into what was felicitously named Piedmont Heights, a veritable wilderness of ravines, rocks, cactus, and trails. He would gather rocks and bring them home, then repeat his trip over and over again until he had enough to start mixing mortar and building exterior walls."
Like today, there were many well-known citizens who resided in Kern Place. The house at 711 Cincinnati Ave. was originally built for Richard M. Dudley, who was El Paso's mayor from 1923 to 1925. Several owners later, Mrs. Robert Thompson Hoover deeded the property to the University of Texas at El Paso in 1965. Today, the elegant Hoover House continues to serve as the residence of the University president.
Peter Kern had a hand in much of the development and direction of his new neighborhood. Many of the street names originated from friends and associates of Kern, and Madeline Park was named after his daughter. But one of the most interesting personal touches that Kern contributed to the neighborhood was the large ornate wrought iron gate that he designed himself and called his monument to Lady Luck.
Somewhere around 1915, Kern constructed the gate that formed an archway to the entrance of the neighborhood at the intersection of North Kansas Street and Robinson. Intricate designs and elaborate symbols representing Kern's love of mysticism and the engraver's frills and scrolls covered the arch over Kansas Street. The iron gate contained swastikas (an ancient symbol found in the Anasazi Indian culture and many others), a zodiac calendar, an array of other ancient symbols, the Kern family crest and 444 electric light globes that illuminated the words "Kern Place" in all its flamboyant beauty.
The gate was officially turned on in 1916 and caused quite a stir among El Pasoans. The late Rosemary Fryer, daughter of attorney W. H. Fryer, reminisced about the elaborate gate in a letter to the El Paso Times in 1956. "I can recall so vividly asking my father to drive us up to see the lights, and how he would bundle us into the old Maxwell and drive us up there so we could look at the lights."
Kern's monument burned for about two years before residents in the area complained about the bright lights, and vandals found the gate "too good to pass up." Eventually, the entire gate was dismantled in 1954 during a street-widening project.
In 1924, Kern's daughter Madeline came back to El Paso for a visit. Not only did she discover that Madeline Drive and Madeline Park were named for her but that her father's fortune had been restored. It did not take her long to go to court on behalf of her mother and have Kern Place designated community property.
Madeline obtained a judgment that ultimately caused problems with property titles for some Kern Place land, and legal woes spun her father once again into bankruptcy. Madeline sued her own father, two banks and many of the residents for rent. Those who were being sued in turn sued Peter Kern for fraud, and the first day's lawsuits filed totaled $1,610,000.
Although Madeline's claims were found to be groundless, the resulting legal fees were too much for Kern. According to a 1956 El Paso Times article, "One of the banks took over, making a contract with Mr. Kern to allow him to sell off what land was still considered his, making him an allowance as long as practicable of $100 a month on which he lived for a while." But soon the demand for land in Kern had diminished, and Kern's remaining assets rapidly disappeared.
By 1930, Kern was penniless. Ironically, he found work in the neighborhood he had created. He worked as a gardener in Kern Place, earning just 30 cents an hour. He had never lived in his own development. Although he made one last attempt to regain his fortune with a development on nearby Crazy Cat Mountain, funding fell short, and the project was never fully realized during his lifetime.
In 1932, Kern moved to Arlington, Texas, retiring at the Home for Aged Masons. He was taking his customary morning walk along the railroad tracks and failed to hear the approaching train that struck him from behind and killed him on February 8, 1937, at age 80. He was survived by a sister and his daughter Madeline.
In a way, Kern did realize his vision. He had a dream for a beautiful neighborhood and Kern Place is every bit a vision to everyone who lives in it. But even he could not have imagined the impact that this subdivision would have over the years.
Jody Schwartz described Kern as the heartbeat of El Paso -- a place so special that the third generation will be living in the original family home. Her in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan D. Schwartz, Sr., lived on Park Road for 28 years and then passed the house on to her husband, Jonathan D. Schwartz, Jr. They lived in the house for 33 years, and now Jonathan D. Schwartz III will move into the house this summer. The younger Schwartz is returning to El Paso from California to give his children the childhood he remembers in Kern Place.
Barbara Dent, a former Kern Place resident and historian, described the quiet, endearing neighborhood with its meandering sidewalks and pocket parks as "the neighborhood that just keeps getting reborn."
Two recent events provide the only visible blemishes on this idyllic neighborhood: the discovery of elevated levels of lead and arsenic in some yards and the rapid growth of bars and restaurants near Cincinnati Avenue on the edge of Kern Place with resultant noise, crowds, litter and traffic problems. But these are stories in themselves, and only time will determine whether permanent changes in the neighborhood will occur.
Meanwhile, even though the mystical gate has long been taken down, the magic Peter Kern brought to Kern Place lives on.
History of Jewish El Paso maintained by the Jewish Federation of El Paso