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Borderlands: Mabel Welch: Dean of Spanish Architecture 40 (2023-2024)

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

Mabel Welch: Dean of Spanish Architecture

By Dalia Hajir  Additional Borderlands article in Volume 27:  Mabel Welch: El Paso’s First Female Architect 

""In December 1981, the notable architect Mabel Welch died at 91, surrounded by her son and family in California. Nearly thirty years later, in the fall of 2008, the El Paso County Historical Society paid homage to the legacy she earnestly nurtured within the city by inducting her into the Hall of Honor. During the ceremony, her son Elvin, now retired and living in Yakima, Washington, shared a compelling story with Pat Worthington, curator of the society. In what must have been a ceremony of its own, Welch entrusted him to take all her architectural plans, notes, and drawings and burn them in McKelligon Canyon after her death. As any good son would, Elvin fulfilled his promise. But the remarkable Spanish homes in West Texas, New Mexico, and Northern Mexico remain, inspiring as much joy in the families living in them as Welch felt when bringing them to life.

A grand house that Welch designed stands at the edge of a street elevated above the city. The home of white-painted brick majestically faces the broad view of Central El Paso. It is welcomed into the landscape by a bed of bushes at its firmly-rooted foundation, surrounded by a garden of neatly trimmed bushes and trees, one in particular towering over the two-story house. The green tiled roof extends over the balcony, casting a nearperfect shadow, shielding the home’s front from the sun. Two protruding sections, with windows framed by green shutters, flank the facade. This house on 711 Rim Road, built in 1939, stands out amongst many homes on the street that also follow a Spanish style of architecture, which is no coincidence. KTSM’s Borderland Treasures: Exploring the Homes of Mabel Welch reports Welch may have designed 1500 homes in the Southwest, most of them in the Spanish style tradition, which Welch believed best reflected the city’s unique blend of Spanish, Mexican, and American cultures. “Every one of them was built around a dream,” says Troy Ainsworth, Historic Preservation Specialist. “Not just her dream, but her client’s dream.”

Image caption: Mabel Welch, 1920 (Photo Courtesy of Susan Barnum, Wikimedia Commons)

Mabel Clair Vanderburg, born in Mississippi on November 8, 1890, began as a milliner. Without planning, she became El Paso’s first woman registered architect, who spent much of her 60-year-long career designing dream homes for families and engaging in serious and consistent civic work to fight for her ambition of “beautifying” El Paso into a historically rich city.

At nine, Mabel’s family left Mississippi in covered wagons with their livestock, in search of the promised fertile land and gorgeous countryside of Northeast Texas. After four weeks, they arrived in Texarkana, Arkansas, reaching DeKalb, Texas, in 1899. Mabel attended Hubbard Grade School and DeKalb High School, graduating in 1910.

During her millinery and interior decorating apprenticeship, she met Malcolm Hiram Welch, whom she married in 1915 after five years of courtship. However, after a year, Malcolm’s health brought the recently married couple to El Paso due to a tuberculosis diagnosis during a military medical examination. His doctors prescribed a dry climate. In December 1919, now three years in El Paso, Welch gave birth to the couple’s only son, Elvin Carl.

Malcolm had been a merchant who"" bought and built homes as a hobby in DeKalb, Welch is reported in a 1931 article of the El Paso Herald-Post. He turned his interest in building into a contracting business and built homes for El Pasoans by 1920, with Welch as his helper. He did the building, and Welch, the interior design. She enjoyed the drawing the most. She drew the plans for the homes her husband built, filling in the blanks and gaps with intricate decorations. The experience came thanks to a mechanical drawing class she took in school. Once she completed a house plan, she visualized it inside and out, as if one could already walk through the front doors into the reception, the hallways, and the bedrooms. To her, the search for beauty was intimately linked with function, keenly considering the wants, needs, and lifestyles of the families she designed for.

Throughout her illustrious architectural career, she envisioned the joy each family would experience living in one of her houses. For Welch, houses were not meant to be temporary residences; she aspired for each home to last generations, becoming one with the surroundings and cherished as part of the community. Her philosophy of immortalizing architecture reflects her advocacy for preserving historically and culturally charged structures throughout El Paso.

Image caption: Mabel Welch Certificate (Courtesy of El Paso Times) 

Welch and Malcolm, quite the adventurers, in four years lived in the houses they designed and built, until each eventually sold, and then moved on to the next in two months. Sometimes the home sold within a week. Per the El Paso History Alliance, Malcolm built houses across several locations in Central El Paso, such as Trowbridge Drive, Pershing Drive, Tularosa Avenue, Hastings Drive, and the Lower Valley. His architectural style was consistent, with all houses “of dark brick, with white eaves and trim, and black decorator lines around the screen sash and screen doors.”

Though his health improved after moving to El Paso, in 1924, Malcolm’s tuberculosis reemerged, resulting in hospitalization for treatment. While away, Mabel finished building their home at 3131 Wheeling Street, where she resided most of her life. She designed the house as a duplex, Malcolm living on the east side of it, where, as a safety precaution, he used the porch to communicate with his building crews while remaining quarantined. Malcolm and his young son Elvin waved to each other from both sides of the house, the only way they could communicate given the situation.

""During Malcolm’s hospitalization, Welch started the neighboring house at 3127 Wheeling, still employing Malcolm’s crew. However, some of the crew expressed they “did not want to work for a woman.” So, Mabel fired them. “Once it was established that I was the boss and knew what I was doing, I had no more trouble,” she says in her autobiography. To stay close to her son and husband, she built nine homes in the 3100 block of Wheeling Avenue during that time, fifteen on that street overall. Malcolm’s health impeding his work, Mabel took on more of his responsibility, driven by the ambition of preventing his hard work from going to waste, keeping his dream alive through her work. It was also a means to provide for Elvin.

Image caption: Manhattan Heights Home (Courtesy of Mark Stone, The El Paso Sketch Club)

“I would come home every evening and go over the day’s work with him [Malcolm],” Welch tells the 1931 El Paso Herald-Post. “He would give advice, approve and confer with me on problems. It kept his mind off himself. I think he lived much longer than he would have otherwise.” With Malcolm’s invaluable guidance, Welch gradually learned to supervise construction projects, manage finances, and apply diverse building methods. By Malcolm’s passing in 1927, Welch had acquired all the necessary skills to run the Welch Construction Company independently. “As I look on that period of my life, I wonder how I managed,” Welch reflects in her autobiography. “At the time, though, I thought nothing about it. Things had to be done, and I managed to get them done.”

Before running the business on her own, Welch built houses in the Spanish style, which she discovered during a vacation to California, where the Spanish architecture revival was in full swing. Welch, drawn to the style’s individuality, rural feel, and historical association with the region, saw it as an ideal style for El Paso, a rapidly growing city that thrived, even during the Great Depression, as a major trade center between the United States and Mexico. In her autobiography, Welch asserts, “When the crash came in 1929, bringing on the Great Depression of the 1930s, building came to a standstill, and many contractors went out of business. But I concentrated on Spanish-style homes in the middle and medium price ranges and continued to sell them almost as fast as I could build them.” Like many other American architects of the 20th century, Welch customized core elements of the Spanish style to modern tastes and her clients’ needs.

The El Paso History Alliance asserts Welch’s houses, designed to have “red-clay tile roofs, wrought iron grilles, balconies, and white stucco exteriors,” were shaped through study visits to California, San Antonio, and Mexico. Her first home in the Spanish style is at 2915 Wheeling Avenue, which she showed Malcolm on his way to the hospital before he died. The house impressed him so much that he is noted as telling her, “It’s very beautiful,” giving her a smile that Welch says, “gave me assurance.”

For Welch, landscaping was necessary. Judging by her relentless advocacy of the environment and the magnificent gardens she incorporated in many of her designs, she considered garden design as important as the house itself. A 1938 El Paso Herald-Post article explains that a dream-like section of a piece of literature by Welch wonderfully describes greenery and gardening essential to her perfect residence: “I should like my house to be surrounded by growing things – a garden full of colorful and sweet-scented flowers, and trees that shade it by day and murmur softly to it by night. I should also like it surrounded by a rock wall, not to bar the outside world – just to draw me a bit closer to this dream home of mine,” a testament to Welch’s sensitivity to nature and her wholehearted commitment to sustainable design.

One does not have to be an architect to appreciate her work, but being able to place words into every element must undoubtedly make it more rewarding to see her houses. Welch’s journey into building luxurious Spanish-style homes began at 3100 Gold Avenue, where she created the house she became the proudest of, the Paul Harvey residence. As the Harveys requested, Welch employed many techniques to give the house an aged appearance. The El Paso History Alliance describes the heavy roof as adorned with five layers of red tiles required to be supported by just as robust wooden beams attached to the balcony. An ornate wrought iron fence enclosed the balcony; all the ironwork was treated in acid and ashes, giving it a weathered look. Two feet thick brick walls were intentionally laid in uneven courses, a task Welch says frustrated the bricklayers, whose practice was to place the bricks evenly. She hired Mexican artisans with the skills to produce elaborate designs and techniques befitting the Spanish style. A Mexican wood artisan carved the faces of the Harvey children into the ceiling beams and did many “hand carvings, scrollwork and decorations” throughout the Harvey home.

""The Schuster home at 939 Rim Road, one of the most iconic homes in El Paso, nicely exemplifies Welch’s resourcefulness. One of the few non-Spanish homes she designed, the house was styled as English Norman, with Welch using marble mantles and marble stair treads she bought from the U.S. Court House when it was demolished. Marble covered the library floor and made its way onto the staircase to heighten the old castle feel. Welch recycled old streetlamp standards and used them as pillars with Corinthian capitals in the home. The Schuster home, nicknamed by El Pasoans as the “Castle House,” is Welch’s most expensive El Paso home. Her most expensive home in Chihuahua City was priced over $250,000 at construction time.

Image caption: The Castle (Courtesy of El Paso History Alliance)

In 1935, Mayor Ray E. Sherman and the City Council commended Welch for guiding El Paso’s architecture from the Bungalow style to the more suitable Spanish Colonial Revival style. The El Paso History Alliance asserts that her influence reached so deeply she eventually became known as El Paso’s “Dean of Spanish Architecture.” Houses on Federal Boulevard, Wheeling Avenue, Silver Avenue, and Rim Road, along with their gorgeous gardens, serve as memorials to her work and prove Welch’s indelible mark on the city’s architecture. Four of her designs, including the house at 3038 Federal Avenue, were featured in Planning Your Home for Better Living (1945), written by Yale engineering professor Clarence W. Dunham and advertising manager Milton D. Thalberg. The book, used as a textbook at Yale University, aimed to help readers build the home of their dreams through careful planning and consideration by presenting distinguished homes of many styles throughout the country.

In 1937, the El Paso Herald-Post featured an article about successful businesswomen and commended Welch’s achievements. By that time, ten years after she acquired her husband’s business, Welch had designed around 350 homes and buildings, become president of the Architectural Department of the Woman’s Department of the Chamber of Commerce, and formed part of the Woman’s Auxiliary of the College of Mines (now the University of Texas at El Paso). The time in between raising her son, engaging in civic work, attending meetings, or focusing on architectural work, she spent studying architecture. The El Paso History Alliance reports she studied architecture at the University of Chicago in 1936, and in 1937 she began studyin""g with George Washington Smith of Santa Barbara, a nationally-recognized architect for his iconic Spanish Colonial Revival style homes in California, where Welch had drawn inspiration for her designs.

Architects from the State Board of Architectural Examiners evaluated Welch’s homes, says a July 21, 1939, El Paso Herald-Post article. Unsurprisingly, she passed all requirements and became the city’s only woman to become a registered architect and the second in Texas, a role model for all future female architects and businesswomen. When issued, her certificate referred to Welch as a “he,” a surprising detail that speaks of how irregular it was for a woman to be authorized as an architect. Businessmen residing in homes she built and successful architects such as Edward Sibbert, renowned architect of El Paso’s Kress Department Store, publicly recognized her. In 1956, Welch became a Fellow in the Society of American Registered Architects in acknowledgment of her longstanding career.

Image caption: Peter and Margaret de Wetter Center (Courtesy of Mark Stone, The El Paso Sketch Club)

Actively involved in public matters, Welch dressed impeccably. She wore large, decorated hats in photographs, often matched with colorful, dignified suits. The elegant expression on her chiseled features and the carefully groomed locks framing her face lend her an air of distinction, commanding attention and respect. Over the 40 years since she passed away in 1981, most preserved photographs of her may be in black and white; however, numerous newspaper reporters, journalists, and historians attest to the imposing presence and beautiful style she permanently painted in El Paso.

Having practiced architecture at a time when the profession remained male-dominated, she faced many challenges. However, she stood her ground. Much like her houses, she was a woman of solid build and sturdy personality, passionate and consistent, and hugely praised for being an architect who brought her visions to fruition.

In 1934, the Woman’s Department of the Chamber of Commerce developed an architectural program encouraging El Paso’s transition into the Spanish style, states the El Paso History Alliance. In 1939, they even sponsored a building and remodeling contest with cash prizes, motivating El Pasoans to create stylized homes that suited the Southwest. In 1943, Welch was elected director of the Department for the 1943-44 term, achieving noteworthy accomplishments. One of her most memorable achievements was organizing a goodwill trip to Chihuahua City to study its Spanish architecture and impressively clean streets. The trip, attended by women from the Department, committee representatives, and reporters from the El Paso Herald-Post and the El Paso Times, Welch described as the “first of its kind ever made.” They attributed the unique residences, clean parks and streets, and diversified architectural styles to its residents’ imaginative and disciplined nature, who “spared no effort” to give them a welcoming experience. The tour created a friendship between El Paso and Chihuahua women, who, in turn, were invited by the El Paso Chamber of Commerce to visit El Paso in November of that year.

Many other initiatives of the Woman’s Department of the Chamber of Commerce to clean El Paso included campaigns in landscaping and anti-littering, such as ordinances warning litterbugs they would face expensive fines, even prosecution, if they threw trash, marked the walls, or placed defective garbage cans outside their homes. Welch tells El Paso Herald- Post in 1966 that residents had noticeably grown so accustomed to trash that they saw the city as infected with an incurable illness. However, she let residents know it did not have to be that way and that everyone could do their part to keep El Paso “clean and beautiful.” Welch marveled at the pleasantly clea""n streets and green landscapes during her travels to other cities, such as Los Angeles and Chihuahua, Mexico. Wishing the same for El Paso, she incorporated what she learned into her approach to architecture. In a July 1965 El Paso Herald-Post article, Welch says El Paso’s reputation as a dirty city was over, now being “clean as a pin.”

“A more beautiful city will lift our thinking to a more affirmative, constructive outlook,” Welch says in an August 1965 El Paso Herald-Post article. “We must preserve and restore the best of our old architecture, which is the culture, the dignity, and personality of each past generation where architects are concerned.” Determined to collaborate with like-minded citizens to reinvigorate El Paso’s history through its architecture, Welch created the Beautify El Paso Association on May 28, 1966. Her efforts were promptly recognized statewide, for she was elected as part of the Beautify Texas Council under President Lyndon B. Johnson in the same year.

Image caption: Manhattan Heights Home (Courtesy of Mark Stone, The El Paso Sketch Club)

After many years of living in El Paso, Welch states in her autobiography that helping impoverished juveniles became her most rewarding experience. In 1961 she became part of the Citizens Committee on Children and Youth, an organization that worked with young people in need to improve their living conditions and opportunities. Welch generously financed the education of five boys, who were to be sent to Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch in 1964 to learn skills that would allow them to make an honest living. Her “boys” thrived at the ranch, with three making it to the honor roll.

In her autobiography, Welch shares that she was a member of numerous organizations, to include Trinity Methodist Church, Pan-American Round Table, Association of Pioneer Women, El Paso Museum of Art (charter member), Women’s Auxiliary of Providence Memorial Hospital (life and charter member), Woman’s Committee of the El Paso Symphony Association, El Paso County Historical Society, and the National Society of Arts and Letters (Woman’s Department), Chamber of Commerce and the El Paso Symphony Association.” Later in life, Welch donated her collection of Spanish architecture books to the El Paso Public Library.

Mabel Welch said in 1931, “In some ways, it’s a tough world, but it pays back whatever a person puts into it. If we are purposeful, it throws in a few breaks to help us because in being purposeful, we usually put ourselves at the spots where the breaks are likely to happen.” She argues that putting ourselves through a challenging path that genuinely follows our ideals and dreams often rewards us with something meaningful. And that, as she demonstrated throughout her work and philosophy, is a uniquely beautiful life design.

Mabel Welch / Manhattan Heights Sources

Borderlands Treasures: Exploring the Homes of Mabel Welch

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