Article first published in Vol. 28 (2010-2011)
By Heather Coons
Have you ever felt the hair on the back of your neck rise, but when you look around, nothing is there?
According to Natalie Castillo, a law office receptionist on the third floor of the Toltec Building, working late on Saturday nights can be an uncomfortable experience.
“I feel like I’m not alone,” Castillo admitted. “I’ll see something from the corner of my eye, and I’ll turn and look, but nothing’s there.” She is not the only person to report strange happenings at the Toltec over the years.
Image caption: When the building was completed in 1910, the Toltec Club was considered the finest social gathering place in El Paso. (Photo by Heather Coons)
So what went on in this El Paso building that most people do not know by name and that ghosts may still be haunting? From 1911 through 1930, the vast majority of political and business decisions affecting El Paso were made there, and every prominent guest to the area was entertained in El Paso’s Toltec Club.
Historian C. L. Sonnichsen explained in his book Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande that the uproar at the turn of the 20th century over gambling, dancing, saloons and prostitution caused a group of elite members to break away from The El Paso Club and start a new club for witty, knowledgeable businessmen who could lead El Paso into a new era.
Founding members declared in an article published in the El Paso Herald on Feb. 3, 1902, “We shall have a club modeled along the lines of modern eastern [U. S.] clubs … and make it worthy of the new El Paso.” This article also reported on an unusual feature of the club’s proposed “social hour”: to discuss business and personal matters, an element that was predicted to become a “popular movement in El Paso.”
Thanks to founding members W. H. Burges, T. M. Wingo, Felix Martinez, W. W. Turney, A. P. Coles, Britton Davis and brothers J. Arthur Eddy and C. B. Eddy, the Toltec (meaning “man of knowledge”) Club was born. Members of the exclusive club for men signed articles of incorporation on Nov. 18, 1902. Shortly thereafter, ground broke for the $100,000 brick five-story building to be constructed on the site of the former First Baptist Church at the intersection of San Antonio and Magoffin Streets.
The gentlemen of the Toltec Club immediately set out to build a clubhouse that was every bit as polished as they were, with the newest and best of materials and furnishings brought in from around the world via railroad. The “flatiron” shape of the building also drew interest and to this day demands second and third looks by downtown visitors.
Leon Metz wrote in his book El Paso Chronicles that the new Toltec Building was declared to be the “brightest spot of its time in El Paso” when the doors officially opened on Oct. 14, 1910. With a high initiation fee of $100 and yearly dues of $50, membership was guaranteed to remain exclusive. The membership list of the Toltec Club read like a “Who’s Who” of El Paso society. Besides the original members, some of the more prominent members included Joseph Magoffin, founder of the first bank in El Paso and civic leader, and Henry C. Trost, the Southwest’s foremost architect, who arrived in El Paso in 1903.
The Toltec Club had one of the grandest ballrooms in the area, along with a dining room that claimed to have the finest cuisine in the country. The building featured a billiards room, reading rooms, lounging rooms and apartments for bachelor members.
Members also gathered in the gaming room for high stakes gambling, according to an article in Password by Robert M. Esch.
Members enjoyed this “civilized” gambling, but they believed that the rough-and-tumble local saloons, prostitutes and unrestricted gambling hindered the development of a progressive city. This group of prominent men was united in the desire to stop the political corruption that was rife throughout the area.
Although membership was exclusively male, the gentlemen of the Toltec Club held regular lavish events to entertain their wives, who wore formal evening gowns; tails and ties for men were mandatory. The annual New Year’s Eve masquerade ball brought much anticipation and excitement. Sonnichsen wrote that the men took pride in their annual stag dinners that were held to elect club officers, events that also demanded tails and ties.
The Toltec Club became the headquarters for the El Paso Bar Association, and they, too, held annual voting dinners to elect club officers. El Paso’s Elk Lodge 187 was also housed at the Toltec. Not only did many of El Paso’s business and political decisions and debates and glitzy socializing take place at the Toltec Club during the early 1900s, but the Toltec Club also played a prominent role in the Mexican Revolution.
In 1910, Mexico’s president, Porfirio Díaz, was under pressure from Francisco I. Madero and his general, Pancho Villa, to resign. David D. Romo explained in his book Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez:1893-1923 that middle- and upper-class businessmen, politicians and intellectuals, like Mexican entrepreneur Oscar Braniff and El Paso’s own Felix Martinez, carried out peace negotiations between Madero and the Díaz Administration at the Toltec Club.
President Díaz resigned after the Battle of Ciudad Juárez on May 18, 1911, and Madero, the new president of Mexico, was honored at a victory banquet held at the Toltec Club. In the very same building that had entertained former President Díaz, Madero sat alongside his only invited officer, Eduardo Hay, and the defeated, yet dignified, Gen. Juan Navarro.
From 1911 through 1917, the most important guests in the area were entertained at the Toltec Club. Former president Theodore Roosevelt visited on several occasions and on March 16, 1911, Roosevelt was in “high spirits” and “ate heartily” at a breakfast held in the Toltec dining room, according to an article in the El Paso Times.
Gen. John J. Pershing was also honored at the Toltec Club after pursuing Pancho Villa, who, according to Metz and Romo, rented the first floor of the Toltec Club during the Mexican Revolution as his headquarters for smuggling munitions.
However, the immense power of the Toltec Club could not withstand the blow of Prohibition during which many El Paso establishments moved across the border to Juárez. America’s economic collapse during the Great Depression caused the members of the Toltec Club to close its doors in 1930.
Although lacking its original splendor both inside and out, the privately owned Toltec Building still stands in downtown El Paso across from the Federal Building. The historically significant Renaissance/ Beaux Arts architectural style, engineered by J. J. Huddart, and the vastly significant social and political functions that took place inside its doors allowed it to be recorded in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. After the club disbanded, the Toltec Building became the home of several businesses: Leo’s Mexican Food in the 1950s, the Upstairs Theater Downtown in the 1970s, Dominic’s Italian Restaurant (now at another location) and a bail bonds company on the first floor. But aside from the law office that has remained on the third floor for more than 30 years, businesses don’t stay at the Toltec. Why would such a beautiful old building stand basically empty?
Two El Paso natives, Ken Hudnall and Connie Wang, wrote in Spirits of the Border: The History and Mystery of the El Paso Del Norte that while the Upstairs Theater occupied the ballroom, unexplained incidents often occurred.
June Davidson, an actor with the Upstairs Theater, stated in an El Paso Times article written by Pat Henry entitled “Spooked Actors Insist ‘Stage Fright’ is No Act,” that stage lights would mysteriously change colors or explode and props would fall for no reason. Bill Logan, another thespian with the Upstairs Theater, stated in that same article that he and two others saw the image of Pancho Villa across the street and heard the jangling of his spurs on the first floor.
I had to know if the building was really haunted. Playing a hunch, I went downtown and ended up having a conversation with the law office’s receptionist, Natalie Castillo, mentioned at the beginning of this story.
Not only did Castillo admit to seeing things out of the corner of her eye and feeling as if someone else were in the room, she also recalled hearing from housekeeping staff that doors rattled for no reason. Castillo was adamant that the activity was in no way negative. “It’s not bad. I just know something’s there.”
Just a little over 100 years ago, El Paso’s social elite gathered together to form an alliance in an effort to build a better city for future generations. Because of their commitment, the borderland prospered. The Toltec Building was the home for these progressive minded individuals, and its members left us with more than the buildings and improvements they made for our area, like Elephant Butte Dam, the electric and water companies, banks, schools and the university. They left us with a legacy: working together for the prosperity of the community. Too many important people walked the halls of the Toltec Building, and too many important events took place inside its sacred walls for it not to have left an indelible mark. Whether it’s haunted or not, the building’s unique shape and history make it one of El Paso’s major landmarks.