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Sunset Heights Preserves History
By Aurora Maravilla and Anita Morales
Residential Lots for Sale - only $150 to $175. Buy now on top of the hill overlooking downtown. Beautiful view of the Franklin Mountains to the east and great view of the Rio Grande and Mexico to the south. Plans for the area include parks and an electric railway. Free rides for prospective buyers!
That's what a classified ad might have said at the turn of the century about one of the oldest neighborhoods in El Paso: Sunset Heights. The area is bounded on the east by North El Paso Street, on the west by I-10, on the south by West Main Street and West Franklin Avenue, on the north by Schuster Avenue. The University of Texas at El Paso is located just north of it. El Paso's largest medical and hospital districts are found just northeast of the neighborhood. The elevation of Sunset Heights does indeed offer exciting views of the Franklin Mountains, the Rio Grande and Old Mexico.
J. Fisher Satterthwaite, an emigrant from New York, came to El Paso in 1880 for health reasons. He had a vision of pushing the growth of El Paso north of the railroad tracks. Satterthwaite began purchasing the high grounds around El Paso in 1881. The land was northwest of the town center on craggy hills overlooking the Rio Grande.
Historian C. L. Sonnichsen wrote that the rocky, hilly terrain had seemed to other builders fit only for goats. But Satterthwaite had foresight. He believed that the town was to be the metropolis of the Southwest. A dozen teams of horses and forty men went to work. Aided by explosives, they leveled the rocky terrain and filled in arroyos. The backbreaking work took months.
The rough hilly tracts became rounded knolls and were reshaped into 1,200 lots. Satterthwaite Addition was ready to become the most prestigious neighborhood in El Paso. By 1884, water and gas mains were in as were the electric light and telephone poles.
In 1885, Satterthwaite advertised that 90 houses had been built and more were coming in this, the first planned development in El Paso. He intended the neighborhood to house prominent Mexican and Anglo families headed by professionals including doctors, lawyers, judges, artists, professors and architects. Among those who owned homes and lived in the addition were Albert Mathias, Richard Burges, Henry Trost, William Turney, William Farah, Ernst and Olga Kohlberg.
Satterthwaite constructed a place for socializing called Mesa Gardens. It was built on a large lookout near 603 Yandell. The establishment provided shooting galleries, shuffleboard and cold beer. Couples danced in the ballroom to the McGinty Band, which played on many occasions. Mesa Gardens even hosted shooting matches between city marshals and sheriffs while the public wagered on them. In 1899, new owners added a zoological garden, a museum, a billiard hall and a bear pit. The amusement park went out of business near the end of the Mexican Revolution.
Financial reversals in the country in 1894 caught many off guard, including Satterthwaite, and he lost the land. The development briefly took the name of one of its illustrious residents, Senator Mundy, but the name did not last. In 1901, the neighborhood became known as Sunset Heights after the El Paso Herald offered a $50 cash prize for the best name for the subdivision.
Sunset Heights is unique in design. There is not a street that is straight for more than two blocks. All street blocks vary in shape and design from rectangular to diamond and other irregular shapes.
The colorful history of Sunset Heights added much in developing the unique character and attractions of the area. A trip down Yandell Street and adjoining streets opens up a little of the history of El Paso in this unique subdivision.
On the corner of Yandell and Corto at 525 Corto is the former home of Ernst and Olga Kohlberg, a Spanish-Mediterranean house designed by Trost and Trost. The Kohlbergs began the first manufacturing plant in El Paso and were very active in educational and other civic activities. Ernst lived here only one year before he was shot and killed.
Across the street and south of the Kohlberg home one finds the Turtle House at 516 Corto Street, so named because of the turtle design in brick on one wall. This brick two-story home is said to have been a center for smuggling of Chinese immigrants in the late 1880s when the United States banned the Chinese from entering this country.
Leon Metz writes, "One route of illegal entry supposedly called for entering a Juárez tunnel and walking or crawling underneath the Rio Grande until the tunnel finally surfaced at the Turtle House. From the Turtle House, the Chinese dispersed into other parts of the United States. The Turtle House thus became a sanctuary." However, Metz and other historians question the existence of such a tunnel.
At 603 W. Yandell, just north of the Kohlberg home, is the home of Richard F. Burges. The Classical Revival style house features four large columns in the front supporting the roof. Burges was city attorney in 1908 and wrote the city charter. He became a member of the Texas House of Representative in 1913. He was instrumental in the development of Carlsbad Caverns and the building of the Elephant Butte Dam. The home is now the headquarters for the El Paso County Historical Society.
At the next intersection on the right at 323 Rio Grande is the home of Joseph F. Williams designed by Trost and Trost in Mission Revival style. It was in Mayor Williams' home in 1915 that Pancho Villa and U. S. General Hugh Scott met two different times to discuss relations between the two countries. Partially because the United States refused to recognize Pancho Villa as a legitimate representative of the Mexican people, he attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico, in March of 1916. This led to General John J. Pershing's expedition into Mexico.
Down the street at 1013 Yandell is the home of Henry Trost himself, El Paso's pioneer architect. The home fits perfectly in its corner location. The house is as breathtaking today as in 1908 when it was built. It is considered one of the finest Prairie Style houses in the state. Prairie architecture features low-pitched roofs, usually hipped, with widely overhanging eaves. Porches with massive square supports are found on the first story. These features keep the Southwestern sun away from the interior of the house.
Frank Lloyd Wright made Prairie architecture famous and greatly influenced Trost. When Wright saw Trost's home for the first time in 1957, he reportedly remarked, "How did that get here?"
A man who helped bring modern merchandising to El Paso, Maurice Schwartz, lived at 1105 Prospect at the corner of Yandell and Mundy Park. Built in 1910, his home is an American Foursquare designed by Edward Kneezell, one of the earliest architects in El Paso. Mabel Welch, El Paso's first woman architect, remodeled the sunroom and powder room and Henry Trost designed a study and bath and some furniture.
Off Yandell is the diamond-shaped Mundy Park. It was a part of the original subdivision. The area was once an El Paso cemetery, but bodies were removed in the early 1880's. This park is one of three in Sunset Heights.
Image caption: Senator Mundy's former home in Queen Anne style. Located at 1401 W. Yandell, it now houses the Jesus and Mary Traditional Roman Catholic Academy. Photo by Dave Skar.
Two colorful figures in the Mexican Revolution lived in this area under house arrest. Former Mexican President Victoriano Huerta, believed to have played a large role in the assassination of President Francisco Madero, lived at 415 West Boulevard, today's Yandell Street. This area was destroyed in the building of I-10. The other Mexican Revolutionary figure who lived here was Pascual Orozco. He later escaped and was shot to death by Texas Rangers.
While only a few of the original families remain in Sunset Heights, the diversity of the area has increased. Today, the wealthy and the low income, young couples and retirees and families and college students reside in Sunset Heights.
In 1984, the City council established the Sunset Heights Historic District. This allowed several prominent homes to be completely restored and others saved from the wrecking ball. An $8.2 million Community Development Grant also helped restore and maintain buildings in the neighborhood.
A new interest in the Sunset Heights' historical past has stirred excitement in prospective homeowners in the neighborhood. More El Pasoans are deciding to move closer to downtown instead of to the suburbs. This area is surrounded by many conveniences such as hospitals, the freeway, EPCC and UTEP, and the downtown business area.
At the turn of the 20th century, El Paso's Sunset Heights area was one of the most elegant of the community. It was a melting pot of ethnic cultures. The original homeowners were influential Mexican families fleeing the political pressures of their native country, and prominent Jewish and Anglo families. Today, it is a vibrant neighborhood with more different types of 19th and early 20th century architecture than any other area of El Paso.
- Borderlands article on Mabel C. Welch, first woman architect and first woman builder of El Paso
- Historic Sites in El Paso -- EPCC's Historical Markers Project.
- Library of Congress' American Memory Built in America collection for El Paso.
- History of Jewish El Paso maintained by the Jewish Federation of El Paso