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Borderlands: Henry Trost's Architectural Legacy Lives On 20 (2001-2002)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Henry Trost's Architectural Legacy Lives On

Article first published in Vol. 20 (2001-2002)

By Richard Tovar and Gloria Ordoñez

El Paso High School. Loretto Academy. Hotel Paso del Norte. Bassett Tower.  Mills Building.   La Tuna Federal Correctional Institute. Schools, skyscrapers, prisons. Architect Henry C. Trost designed them all, in addition to hundreds of private residences, putting his own imprint on El Paso. Many of his buildings are still in use and they are still pleasing to the eye.

Henry C. Trost, born to German immigrants in 1860 in Toledo, Ohio, came by his interest in architecture naturally. His father was a carpenter and building contractor as well as a grocer. At 17, Henry graduated from art school in Toledo and worked as an architectural draftsman. Moving to Denver in 1880, he worked as a draftsman for an architectural firm before moving to Pueblo where he went into partnership with architect Frank Weston. For the next several years, Trost worked in several cities in Colorado, as well as Fort Worth, Galveston, New Orleans and Dodge City.


Image caption: Henry Trost, architect of hundreds of buildings in the El Paso area. Photo courtesy of the El Paso Public Library.

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In 1888, Trost moved back to the Midwest, living and working in Chicago. There, Trost designed ornamental metal and became a member of the Chicago Architectural Sketch Club, which became the Chicago Architectural Club in 1895. The club functioned like an architectural school where members exhibited designs and engaged in competitions and met regularly for lectures.

This was the golden age of the "Chicago School" of architecture. Trost was influenced by the "father of modern architecture, Louis Sullivan. He may have worked for Alder and Sullivan sometime between 1888 and 1896, alongside another soon-to-be famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Whether or not he actually worked for Sullivan, it is clear that he admired and appreciated the work of both Sullivan and Wright.

After being in Chicago for eight years, Trost moved back to Colorado Springs and then in 1899 to Tucson with his sister, Louise. Their nephew George Ernest Trost joined them in 1903 and later they all moved to El Paso. The first Trost family member to move to El Paso had been one of Henry's brothers, Gustavus Adolphus, who arrived in 1902.

Once Henry arrived in El Paso, he joined forces with Gustavus and formed the architectural firm, Trost & Trost. Adolphus Gustavus Trost, twin brother of the similarly named Gustavus Adolphus Trost, joined his brothers and their nephew as a structural engineer in the firm in 1908. Laura Trost had died, and another sister, Matilda, joined the Trost men in El Paso.

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Trost believed that the city would be an ideal fast-paced area for his architectural firm because the population had grown to over 39,000 residents by the time of his arrival. He was right. The firm enjoyed instant success, with Henry designing large and small buildings, homes, churches, business and public buildings and pioneering the use of steel-reinforced concrete.

One of the finest homes that Trost built in town housed the El Paso Museum of Art for decades. Located at 1205 Montana Avenue, it was originally the home of W.W. Turney and cost $50,000, a veritable fortune at the time. The two-story home featured Corinthian columns and pilasters supporting porch roofs on the south and east sides of the home, a design reminiscent of the plantation homes in the South.

After Turney died, his wife gave the home to the city of El Paso, and it was remodeled to some extent. The building was threatened with demolition a few years ago when the Museum of Art moved downtown, but it was saved and now houses the city's International Museum of Art.

Henry C. Trost built El Paso's first skyscrapers and large downtown buildings. The Popular Department Store building, Bassett Tower, Hotel Paso Del Norte, Hotel Cortez  and the Palace Theatre are among Henry C. Trost's most captivating and popular downtown buildings. The Mills building, a twelve-story skyscraper, was the second reinforced concrete building built in the United States. The 16-story Bassett Tower for many years was the tallest building downtown. Because it was designed as a finished building on all four sides at a time when many buildings were finished only on one or two sides, it is still open and light. An example of Chicago Art Deco, Bassett Tower features a sculptured face over its Texas Avenue entrance which many have testified to be modeled on Trost himself.

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Image caption: Architect Henry C. Trost's home at 1013 W. Yandell in Prairie Style.  Photo by Aurora Maravilla

Trost also designed over 200 homes in the area. One of Trost's most significant designs was his own home built in 1908 at 1013 West Yandell at a cost of $15,000. He used an adaptation of Frank Lloyd Wright's "prairie house" design, making the building part of the landscape. Lloyd C. and June-Marie Englebrecht discuss this school of architecture in their book on Trost, saying that it was a relatively short-lived movement but since has been widely celebrated.

Although first designed to take advantage of the geographical and climatic features of Midwestern prairies, the plan fitted well into southwestern landscapes. Trost's house featured wide eaves overhanging the roof and a double roof with a layer of air between the two parts to protect the house from the harsh sun. A pavilion entrance and balconies also keep sun away from windows. External walls are plastered, and brick is used only on lower parts of the house. Shades of brown on the exterior reflect the arid Southwest. Stained glass windows and built-in furniture and lighting fixture inside continue the natural look. (See related story in this issue on Sunset Heights)

The Paso Del Norte Hotel, opened in 1912, has functioned under various names, most recently becoming a Hilton Hotel in April 2001, after being known to El Pasoans as the Camino Real for several years. Owner Zach White traveled to San Francisco to inspect buildings that survived the 1906 earthquake so that similar features could be used. The hotel also makes use of fireproof gypsum from New Mexico for the interior partitions.

The original nine floors were capped with a tenth floor ballroom in 1922, also designed by Trost.  Inside, a 25-foot Tiffany Dome dominates the two-story lobby, now including a bar and restaurant. The hotel is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, reflecting its historic past. Among guests who have stayed at the Paso Del Norte are Pancho Villa, John J. Pershing, Eleanor Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. The lobby was the scene of the signing of the Chamizal Treaty by President Lyndon B. Johnson and Mexican President Diaz-Ordaz.

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Few El Pasoans are aware that Trost designed the first four buildings of the Texas State School of Mines, now the University of Texas at El Paso. The architect blended the mountain terrain with the suggested Bhutanese motif for the first four buildings, including Old Main, in the center of the University. Trost also drew plans for a fifth building, Kelly Hall, built in 1920-21.

Motorists on I-10 in the Anthony area might wonder what the huge castle-like building in the distance is. La Tuna Federal Correctional Institute was among Henry C. Trost's final major projects. La Tuna uses a Spanish Colonial Revival design, with buildings completed in 1933.

Henry C. Trost died on September 19, 1933. Although the architectural firm continued work until the early 1950s, none of the latter buildings was significant, emphasizing the fact that Henry C. Trost was chief designer of the firm. Trost altered El Paso's landscape with many different architectural styles, designing unique buildings that today solidly stand and are considered classics. Henry C. Trost was a man who affected the way El Paso would look into the 21st century.

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tags: biography

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