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Turney Mansion Becomes Work of Art
Article first published in Vol. 14, 1996.
By Dominique A. Esparza
William Ward Turney. Henry C. Trost. Samuel H. Kress. Although these are not household names in El Paso, each man contributed to our city in a special way. El Paso received a huge gift from these men, each from an entirely different walk of life.
The original Turney Mansion. Photo courtesy of Border Heritage Center, El Paso Public Library
In 1892, W.W. Turney moved to El Paso from Alpine, Texas. In 1907, Henry C. Trost designed a house for W.W. Turney, and in 1929, Samuel H. Kress started the Kress Foundation to promote his love of art. These three events helped to establish the basis for the El Paso Museum of Art, located at 1205 Montana Avenue, which opened in December 1961.
William Ward Turney accomplished a great deal in El Paso. Born in Marshall, Texas, in 1861, he received his license to practice law in 1887. He moved to Fort Davis, where he briefly practiced law, then to Alpine, where he married Iva Guthrie in 1892, before moving to El Paso. This was also the year that Turney was elected to the lower house of the Texas Legislature.
Turney specialized in corporate law. He was associated with several companies in El Paso, including the Rio Grande Oil Company, and represented the Southwestern Telegraph and Telephone Company. Turney served two terms in the Texas house and was elected to the senate in 1896, where he served until he retired in 1902.
In El Paso, Turney was on the committee to conduct the carnival queen election in 1900, similar to today's Sun Carnival contest. He served on the Board of Directors for the Chamber of Commerce and was on the Business Men's Committee of the YMCA, which helped organize and build the YMCA.
Turney was one of the organizers of the Cattle Raisers Association, leading a delegation in 1902 from El Paso to the convention in Fort Worth to bring the next gathering to El Paso. During two separate terms, Turney served as president of the Texas Cattle Raisers Association, from 1903-1906 and again from 1919-1921.
In 1903, the great architect Henry Trost came to El Paso. Over the next three decades, he designed over 200 buildings, both residences and major offices. His designs were influenced by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as by Pueblo and Spanish architecture. In 1907, he designed a home for W.W. Turney. The mansion on Montana was Colonial in style and, at a cost of $50,000, was one of the largest private homes that Trost ever built.
The two-story home featured wooden Corinthian columns and pilasters to support the porch roofs. Inside were ten rooms, among them a library, dining room, three bathrooms and a basement. Accents included white enamel, mahogany trim, beamed ceilings and tile floors in the bathrooms.
The Turneys lived in the mansion for several years. W.W. Turney died in 1939 at the age of 78, and his wife moved into an apartment at the downtown Paso Del Norte Hotel, which rented apartments to several of the elite in the city. She continued to live in the style she was accustomed to for another 21 years until her death in April 1960.
Samuel H. Kress did some great things of his own during this period. The wealthy Kress made his money from a chain of stores by the same name. He bought several pieces of art from the Renaissance and Baroque periods for himself and for American galleries, forming the cornerstones of many art museums. To promote art, Kress established the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1929. In so doing, Kress said he would be able to "promote the moral, physical, and mental welfare of the human race."
In the 1940s, the El Paso Museum Association showed interest in the Turney mansion. The museum offered Mrs. Turney $5,000 for her interest, in exchange for the title of the property .The Museum Association asked that the city take over the title. Commissioners Court voted to allow the city to take tax foreclosure proceedings against the property for conversion of the home to a municipal museum. The city and county then purchased the home for $11,860 at a tax auction.
In 1947, the Turney house was made into the International Museum and housed collections of historical interest. In 1959, Robert McKee, a member of the Museum Association, had an idea to turn the building into a museum for the Kress Collection. McKee was a close friend of the Kress family and helped make the home into a building that would be acceptable to house the Kress Collection.
The east and west wings were added to the original house in 1960. The detailed interior was preserved as much as possible when the additions were made. The wooden staircase with a leaded glass art nouveau window at the landing was left in place, and the grand sitting room remained intact, complete with French provincial furnishings in blue with gold trim.
Raymond L. Telles, mayor of El Paso at the time, handled the transactions and developments with the Kress Foundation to bring the collection to El Paso. Ralph E. Seitsinger, mayor protem during Telles' administration, was mayor when the museum opened.
After completion of the museum, the Kress Foundation made a donation of European art works. The collection arrived on April 20, 1961, in an unscheduled van, in order to minimize the danger of hijacking. Consisting of 57 paintings and two sculptures, the collection featured three time periods of art history: Early Renaissance 1300-1500, High Renaissance 1500-1600 and Baroque Rococo 1600-1800. With this donation, the International Museum closed and the El Paso Museum of Art opened, using a municipal fund of the City of El Paso to pay for operating costs.
Guy Emmerson, Director of the Kress Collection at the time, said that the Kress Collection in El Paso was surpassed in quality only by the art in the National Art Gallery in Washington. El Paso had arrived on the art scene with its connection to the Kress Foundation.
A 1993 El Paso Herald-Post article says the foundation ensures that preservation by routine care is given to the art by some of the best conservation experts. The foundation also helps protect and preserve the integrity of the artwork that it sponsors by insisting that restorative measures are reversible, including any repairs or additions of frames to the paintings. Another aspect of preservation is documentation of the collection by discovering the significance of the art through history and research of each piece of work that the foundation sponsors.
El Pasoan Bertha Ruiz remembers the museum of that era fondly. When she was a fourth-grader at the original Lamar Elementary School on Montana Avenue, her class went on a trip to the museum. In a recent interview, Ruiz said, "My class went on a walking field trip. It was my first exposure to art and I feel that the interest and appreciation of art was instilled in me even if I did not know it at the time," an idea the museum fosters even today.
When Trost designed the home for W. W. Turney, neither knew that 50 years later it would be an outlet for art for the El Paso area and house a famous collection. The home is now used for entirely different things from what it was originally planned for. The living room is now called the Members' Room and features antique furnishings and the treasures of the month. The second floor houses business offices and the reference library. The museum also contains an educational gallery, gift shop, auditorium and classrooms.
The museum is scheduled to move downtown into the former Greyhound Bus Terminal on the corner of Santa Fe Street. Although a new facility is needed, it will not seem quite the same to have the museum at a different location. According to Becky Duval Reese, current Director of the museum, construction is scheduled to begin in April 1996 and will take about 10 months to complete. The move is planned for April of 1997.
Now on exhibit at the Montana street museum through June 30 is a major exhibition of Auguste Rodin's 19th century French sculpture. El Pasoans have less than a year to enjoy a landmark art museum touched by the actions of three great men.