Article first published in Vol. 20 (2001-2002)
By Maribel Capetillo and Jeremy Montanez
The design of the University of Texas at El Paso is unlike any other in the entire nation, but it doesn't claim to be original. Even most area residents do not know that this university's architecture stems from the buildings found in Bhutan in the eastern Himalayas, a country surrounded by India, Bangladesh and Tibet.
Image caption: UTEP architecture in Franklin mountains. Photo courtesy of the El Paso Historical Society
Before becoming the University of Texas at El Paso, the school was known as Texas Western College. Before that, it was the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy, created in 1913 by an act of the 33rd legislature, when El Paso was a center of mining activity. Nancy Hamilton writes that the first publication recruiting students to enter the school said, "In opportunity for geological study no mining school in the United States is more favorably located."
The original college opened in 1914 on a site now part of Fort Bliss. It would be short-lived, however. On October 29, 1916, a fire of unknown origin ravaged the main classroom building. The fire destroyed the school's records and incinerated every piece of furniture. Students temporarily moved to El Paso High.
Shortly thereafter, a site selection committee met to decide a new location for the School of Mines. Lawyer and Mayor Tom Lea, C. B. Hudspeth, Texas state senator and newspaper publisher, and R. F. Burges, state representative and conservationist, headed the group. The committee chose a location on a mesa a mile and a half north of downtown. Five El Pasoans donated the 23 acres of land to the school.
Geologist and engineer Stephen H. Worrell served as Dean of the School of Mines. His wife Kathleen used their travels around the world as subjects of her writing and painting. Her favorite magazine was National Geographic. In the April 1914 issue, she first saw photographs of buildings in Bhutan and noticed the similarity between the landscape of Bhutan and that of the Franklin Mountains. The article by John Claude White, British political officer, contained " a wondrous display of sepia-toned pictures of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan … probably the first of the ancient hidden 'Land of the Thunder Dragon.'" Thus was born the idea of Bhutanese architecture for the new School of Mines.
Image caption: Artist's concept of the Paro Dzong in Bhutan on which Old Main is based. Illustration by Armando Ruiz
Construction money for this venture was forthcoming from Austin and the first buildings cost a grand total of $115,000. Charles M. Gibson and George C. Robertson produced sketches for the first building, now known as Old Main. The architectural firm of Trost and Trost supplied blueprints for the undertaking. It took approximately eight months and twenty tons of dynamite to turn a barren mountainside into an achievement of modern architecture.
Bhutanese architecture features "dzongs," or fortresses, square or rectangular stone buildings first built around the 12th century. Belonging to large, powerful families, these castles were inhabited by local lords who ruled over their lands. In the first half of the 17th century, the dzongs began to act as monasteries as well. The dzongs in Bhutan were built in strategic places such as the meeting of two rivers, the top of a hill or at the entrance of a valley. Some are quite intricate, having been built in stages and being comprised of up to 20 temples.
Steep walls slope inwards and roofs form broad overhanging eaves. Black-rimmed windows inaccessible from the outside stand out from the massive white walls. A wide red stripe just below the roof indicates the religious nature of the building. White referred to these fortress-monasteries as "castles in the sky." In a Bhutanese dzong, the large inner courtyard is surrounded by buildings of two or three stories, and a huge tower known as an "utse" stands in the middle, housing the various temples.
A photograph by White of the "Paro Dzong" supposedly is the inspiration for Old Main. The low hipped roof, the ornamental frieze of tile and brick just below the roof interrupted by the windows of the top story, and the "battered walls" which increase from top to bottom by seven inches per ten feet are among the major Bhutanese features of this building.
Trost agreed that the stark, simple architecture of Bhutan fit the terrain and climate of the Southwest, especially the mountainous site of the new school. In 1917, Old Main was built, and is now a national landmark. The other buildings included the chemistry building, a dormitory and the power plant. Trost also designed a fifth building, Kelly Hall.
Most of UTEP's buildings reflect Bhutanese influence, including the Business Administration building, the Library and the more recent Undergraduate Learning Center, completed in 1996. Miner Village, the new dormitory complex set to open in fall 2001, features 12 dorms also in Bhutanese style.
A major exception to the Bhutanese influence is the Fox Fine Arts building. In the 1970s, students argued for a more modern, futuristic design. Today, some students find the Bhutanese style buildings look more modern while the Fine Arts building is dated.
For most of the campus, however, traditional architecture has been copied from Bhutan down to the prayer wheels in front of the museum. Every detail has been replicated except for the fact that the Bhutanese built their massive structures without the use of nails or blueprints. El Paso and its university have the distinction of being the only location in the Western Hemisphere to reproduce Bhutanese architecture.
Connections also exist between UTEP and Bhutan in other ways. Several Bhutanese students have attended UTEP, and the university and Bhutan exchange art and ideas on a regular basis. Surely Kathleen and Stephen Worrell would be proud of their part in the unique campus that now stands on rugged hills overlooking a dynamic city.