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Mabel Welch: El Paso’s First Female Architect
Article first published in Vol. 27, 2009.
By Elizabeth Torres, Javier Medina and Ruth Vise
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A wife and mother in her 20s. A widow and the sole owner of a construction business at 35. A University student at 46. A registered architect at 49.
In today’s American culture, women are encouraged to follow their dreams regardless of age. But for a woman who moved from Mississippi to Texas in 1900 in a covered wagon to marry late, have her first child at almost 30, run a successful business and go to a university in her 40s in the early part of the twentieth century was most unusual. Mabel Clair Vanderburg Welch never blinked an eye. As she once said, “Things had to be done, and I managed to get them done.”
Image caption: Mabel Welch designed and built many homes in El Paso. (Photo courtesy of the El Paso Historical Society)
Mabel Welch accompanied her husband from DeKalb, Texas, to El Paso in 1916, looking for a cure for his tuberculosis. Born near Longtown, Mississippi, she would not only embrace her new home but become the first woman architect in El Paso and only the second registered one in Texas.
Following graduation from high school, Mabel Vanderburg served apprenticeships in both millinery and interior decoration, traditional female pursuits in her day. These two artistic endeavors would serve her well both in helping her husband with his building company and later when she herself began building homes.
After courting for five years, Malcolm and Mabel married in 1915. During an Army physical, Malcolm was told he had TB and a doctor recommended that he come to dry West Texas. Malcolm took three years to convalesce, and although he had been a successful merchant in DeKalb, he began building houses in El Paso, an occupation that would keep him outside in the soothing dry air he and Mabel had come to love. Having built houses on a farm he owned, Malcolm began financing homes for El Paso residents and by 1920 began building homes in earnest.
Image caption: The home at 3021 Federal Ave. sits high above the street. Photo by Javier Medina, Jr.
From the beginning, Mabel was an active part of Welch Construction Company. She did all the drawings for the houses her husband built, as well as the interior decorating. He built houses on Trowbridge Drive, Pershing Drive, Tularosa Avenue, Hastings Drive – all over Central El Paso – and in the Lower Valley, all of dark brick with white trim and black lines around screen doors. The couple would move into a newly built house until it was sold. In a 1960 interview Mabel said, “For five years we did not occupy the same house over two months at a time. My husband built them and I furnished them.”
Three years after their arrival in El Paso, their only child, Elvin Carl, was born in December 1919. Even though Mabel Welch called herself “old fashioned” for believing that “women who have a good economic position should not work,” she herself was not only a wife and mother but a draftswoman and decorator and part owner of a successful company in the 1920s.
In 1924, Malcolm’s TB became active again and Mabel had to finish a house under construction. While her husband was in the hospital, Mabel built the home she lived in most of her life at 3131 Wheeling Ave. The house was designed as a duplex, with her tubercular husband living in quarantine in the east side which opened to a porch where he could talk with his building crews. As an adult, his son Elvin recalled the only way he and his dad could communicate while the latter was quarantined was to wave to each other from their respective sides of this uniquely designed house.
In a typed autobiography her son recently presented to the El Paso County Historical Society, Mabel Welch noted that at first, the men who worked for her husband refused to work for a woman. So she replaced them and had “no more trouble.” She proceeded to build nine homes in the 3100 block of Wheeling Avenue and a total of 15 on the street in order to be close to her son and husband. During this time, Malcolm advised his wife on financial matters, building techniques and methods of dealing with building crews, and she learned every part of the business. In 1927, Malcolm died, and Mabel became the sole owner of the construction business, drawing all the plans, supervising the building, and even keeping the books.
Image caption: This home at 2619 Altura Ave. features a supporting beam taken from the old Santa Fe Bridge to Juárez. Photo by Elizabeth Torres.
At the time of Malcolm’s death, the Welches had a home under construction which had to be completed or Mabel would have lost the $10,000 bond. She needed money to complete construction and also to build other houses nearby, so she went to Sam Young, then president of El Paso National Bank, who lent her the money immediately, despite the fact that widows were poor financial risks in her day. In her autobiography, Mabel said that Young lent her money because he “had never seen me dancing or partying in Juárez.”
Mabel had begun building Spanish style homes before her husband’s death. Having discovered Spanish architecture in California while on a vacation, she thought the style complemented El Paso’s culture more than the Eastern red brick bungalow style that was then popular. She showed Malcolm one of her early Spanish houses on 2915 Wheeling Ave. on the way to the hospital for the last time before he died. “It’s very beautiful,” he said.
Her second such design was at 2731 Wheeling Ave. and then three elaborate two-story houses followed in Castle Heights below Manhattan Heights. From then on, Mabel Welch would be known for her Spanish-Mediterranean designs – with wrought iron decoration, red tile roofs, arches, balconies, and courtyards.
Image caption: The right side of the home at 3100 Federal Ave. shows the red tile roof, arches, balcony, and white stucco walls that Welch loved. Photo by Javier Medina, Jr.
While many builders went out of business during the Depression, Welch did not. She sold her medium-priced houses as quickly as they were built. In 1934, the Women’s Division of the Chamber of Commerce began an architectural program in El Paso to support the use of Spanish design. Welch herself wrote, “A city with our historical background and geographical location should have an architectural flavor appropriate to, and typical of, our surrounding culture.” In 1935, the city presented her with an official commendation for changing the predominant style of architecture in El Paso from American bungalow to Mediterranean.
In 1936, Welch studied architecture and related subjects at the University of Chicago. In 1937, Mabel Welch began studying with George Washington Smith of Santa Barbara, the foremost authority on Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in California and credited for that state’s love affair with the style. She also studied Spanish architecture in Mexico City and San Antonio. In 1939, the Society of American Registered Architects admitted Mabel Welch, El Paso’s first woman so honored.
Image caption: The home at 3101 Gold Ave. was built in 1952. Photo by Elizabeth Torres.
The first expensive Spanish style home that Welch built was at 3100 Gold Ave. for the Paul Harvey family. With walls two feet thick, as many as five layers of tile on the roof, heavy wooden beams to support the tile and ironwork made to look old, the house caused Welch to hire Mexican artisans to produce many of the Spanish techniques, as American workers did not have the needed skills. Welch writes in her autobiography that she hired a Mexican wood carver to carve the faces of the Harvey children on the ceiling beams of the living room and other decorations throughout the home.
Welch also built huge homes on Rim Road for prominent families, including A. B. Poe, J. P. Kemp and F. P. Schuster, whose house was designed not in Spanish style but English Norman, based on ideas the Schusters had collected from various sources during a trip to Europe in 1927. The original recycler, Welch bought marble mantles and stair treads from the old U.S. Courthouse downtown when it was razed and used the marble in the Schuster “castle” in 1939. She was to use other salvaged materials in other houses during her career.
Image caption: The stunning mansion at 939 Rim Rd originally built for Dr. FrankSchuster is one of the few homes Welch designed in a style other than Mediterranean. ve. was built in 1952. Photo by Javier Medina, Jr.
In 1943, Welch and several other members of the Women’s Division of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce took a goodwill tour of Chihuahua City, about 220 miles south of El Paso to study the city’s Spanish architecture and the regulations that kept that city so clean and inviting. Welch came back with many ideas to incorporate into her own designs. This goodwill tour also created a bond with Mexico, and it was such a success that the El Paso Chamber invited the Chihuahuan women to visit later that year.
Four of Welch’s Spanish designs were chosen for inclusion in Planning Your Home for Better Living by Clarence W. Dunham, Yale engineering professor and Milton D. Thalberg. The house at 3038 Federal Ave. was one of the featured homes in the book used at Yale University for several years as a compilation of outstanding architecture throughout the nation.
Image caption: The home at 3038 Federal Ave. was featured in a book used at Yale University for many years. Photo by Javier Medina, Jr.
In 1959, Mabel Welch became a Fellow in the Society of American Registered Architects in recognition of her long and distinguished career. She built more than 800 homes in West Texas, New Mexico and Northern Mexico. Many of those were in Manhattan Heights, a historical district at the base of the Franklin Mountains in Central El Paso. Welch built a number of large homes after World War II on Gold Avenue, Silver Street and Frankfort Avenue. She also became a real estate broker and bought older homes to remodel and sell.
While excelling in her career, Welch raised her son, who became an electrical engineer, and spent much of his life working with the nation’s space and guided missile programs. She was active in the Women’s Division of the Chamber of Commerce for decades, influencing many businesses to build in Mediterranean style downtown, helping to give El Paso a distinctive look. Taking an active role in making El Paso an attractive place to live, Welch established the “Beautify El Paso Association” in 1966 and worked on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s beautification committee.
She served her city in many ways including working for the Sun Carnival Association and women’s auxiliaries of Texas Western College (now UTEP), the symphony and Providence Memorial Hospital. She was a member of the National Society of Arts and Letters, the El Paso Museum of Art, the Historical Society and the Humane Society.
Welch was always interested in furthering the relations between El Paso and Mexico and was active in the Pan American Round Table and established the Juárez Chamber of Commerce Women’s Department. Texas Governor Coke Stevenson recognized Welch for “renewed efforts toward good neighborly relations with Mexico.”
By 1960, Welch recognized that fewer homes were being built in Mediterranean design. Whereas in the 1920s and 1930s, adobe was among the cheapest of building materials, it had become one of the most expensive, along with the red tile roofs her designs featured. Late in life, she gave her vast collection of books on Spanish architecture to the El Paso Public Library.
Welch died in December 1981 in California where her son and family lived. She was 91. In fall 2008, the El Paso County Historical Society inducted her into its Hall of Honor. Her son Elvin, retired and living in Yakima, Washington, attended the ceremony. He told Pat Worthington, curator for the Society, that his mother had made him promise to burn all her plans and papers in McKelligon Canyon after her death. Like a good son, Elvin did. What has not been destroyed, however, are all the marvelous Spanish homes in Manhattan Heights and other areas in town that Mabel Welch created for families, a concept that gave her such joy.