Narrative by: Yvette Valdez, David Camarenas Garcés, and Dr. George D. Torok
The remains of Casa Ronquillo, also know as the Viceroy’s Palace, the Ellis Home, and the Motor Inn, are located in the central village setting of San Elizario, Texas, adjacent to agricultural lands. The building has a colorful history dating back the Mexican Era and has played an important role in the development of San Elizario. The remains lie on the edge of the San Elizario Lateral (or the Acequia Madre) and the Escajada Acequia, two canals that separate the house from the village, southeast of the intersection of Alarcón Road and Convent Road, about two hundred nineteen yards south of the village square. Casa Ronquillo faces the rear of the old San Elizario presidio site, which is now the location of the San Elizario Church[i].
Documentary evidence suggests that the building was originally constructed during the Mexican administration of the San Elizario presidio (1823-1847). In 1832 the heirs of Don Rafael Corona sold the land to José Ignacio Ronquillo. Ronquillo was a prominent man in the El Paso del Norte area, serving as alcalde of San Elizario, Prefect of El Paso del Norte, and Captain in command of the San Elizario Presidio in the 1830s.[ii] He purchased several tracts of land in the area and a house, which may be the present structure. Ronquillo’s will of 1859, drafted a year before his death, gave a detailed description of the house and property. The estate was later known as the Viceroy’s Palace, probably because of its substantial size and prominence.
According to the 1980 Historical American Building Survey (HABS) files, the house was “an adobe Estancia in the Mexican Tradition” and originally consisted of twelve or more rooms in three wings with an interior courtyard surrounded by a portal.[iii] The magnificent adobe building was built around a courtyard and enclosed by a high wall. The complex originally had two wings and a stable. Kathryn Weedman states that “despite the loss of two wings of the original house, the remaining portion of the house retains a high degree of physical integrity and is classified as an outstanding example of Spanish Colonial architecture with Territorial style elements.”[iv] In their study of Hispanic architecture in Texas, Simons and Hoyt state “that it was constructed in Mexican Hacienda tradition, with elaborate viga ceilings while the complex was surrounded by a high adobe wall that separated the main house from the orchards and fields.[v]
It is not clear what happened to the property immediately after Ronquillo’s death. On April 14, 1869 the land was purchased by Charles Ellis and his wife Teodora Alarcón de Ellis. The existing structure was built on the remains of the Ronquillo house according to an interview with Jesús Montes who helped Ellis with the construction in 1873.[vi] Ellis was a wealthy merchant and political figure in San Elizario, Texas; he served as the county tax collector in 1866, the county treasurer in 1870 and sheriff in 1871.[vii] After acquiring the property he had a series of murals painted on the inside walls of the house. He was later killed by an angry mob during the Salt War of 1877, a conflict over the privatization of the vast salt beds in the east of the county.[viii] Following the Salt War, the house was ransacked and much of the property plundered. Charles Ellis’s wife Teodora continued to reside in the home and run the business her husband had established. In 1907, Teodora Alarcón de Ellis died and the house remained vacant for about a year.
On August 18, 1908 Seth B. Orndorff purchased the property, which consisted of 9.46 acres, from the estate of Teodora Alarcón de Ellis. Two years later it was sold to Judge Leigh Clark.[ix] Clark’s widow, Myra Prater Clark, began operating a “Motor Inn” at the site around 1930. The Motor Inn made use of the spacious grounds and featured multiple dining rooms. By 1935, it was renamed Casa del Rey and probably continued to function as a motor lodge and restaurant. For the rest of the 20th century, local residents continued to refer to Casa Ronquillo, the Old Ellis Home, as the Motor Inn.[x]
By the 1940s Casa Ronquillo had been sold again and was being used as rental property. The structures began to be neglected. In 1959 little remained of the original estate. The El Paso Herald-Post noted that the “once magnificent house in San Elizario [had] been turned into one room apartments for Lower Valley farm workers.” This continued until the late 1960s. By then the surrounding buildings, orchards, patios and most of the rooms were gone. The remains of Casa Ronquillo consist of a crumbling five room segment of the original house. The walls are cement stucco-covered adobe brick. There is a flat parapet roof, unmilled vigas, latillas, metal drains and brick openings. The structure has suffered extensive damage and has been the target of many local graffiti artists who have covered and destroyed the Ellis murals which were still visible in the 1960s. The property and ruins were donated to El Paso Landmarks Inc. in the 1980s for preservation work.[xi]
[i] William W. “Bill” Lockhart, “Casa Ronquillo in San Elizario,” Password 41 (Sum. 1996): 71; Herbert Morrow, The Mission Trail: History, Architecture, Cultural Heritage, and Historic Preservation of the Lower Valley of El Paso, Texas: A Historic Preservation Plan (El Paso, TX 1981), 28; David O. Brown, Cultural Resources Survey in Socorro and San Elizario, El Paso County, Texas (El Paso, TX 1994), 328.
[ii] Rick Hendricks and W. H. Timmons, San Elizario:Spanish Presidio to Texas County Seat (El Paso, TX), 54; C.L. Sonnichsen, Pass of the North:Four Centuries on the Rio Grande (El Paso, TX), I, 110.
[iv] Quoted in David O. Brown, Cultural Resources Survey in Socorro and San Elizario, El Paso County, Texas: Phase III Architectural Studies (El Paso, TX 1994), 328.
[v] Helen Simons and Cathryn A. Hoyt, eds., Hispanic Texas: A Historical Guide (Austin, TX 1992), 316.
[x] David Camarena Garces interview with Olga Trujillo Hernández, volunteer at Los Portales Visitor Center, July 2004.
For more images of Casa Ronquillo please see:
For more information on San Elizario sites please see:
Brown, David O. Cultural Resources Survey in Socorro and San Elizario, El Paso County, Texas: Phase III Architectural Studies: San Elizario. El Paso, Texas: Archaeological Research Inc., 1994.
(El Paso, TX) Herald-Post, Mar. 16, 1938, June 19, 1959.
Hendricks, Rick and W. H. Timmons. San Elizario: Spanish Presidio to Texas County Seat. El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press, 1998.
Historic American Buildings Survey. “Casa Ronquillo” San Elizario Files, HABS/HAER located at the Library of Congress.
Lockhart, William W. “Bill.” “Casa Ronquillo in San Elizario.” Password 41 (Summer 1996): 71-85.
Metz, Leon. El Paso: Guided through Time. El Paso, Texas: Mangan Books, 1999.
Moorow, Herbert C. The Mission Trail: History, Architecture, Cultral Heritage, and Historic Preservation of the Lower Valley of El Paso, Texas. El Paso,Texas: West Texas of Governments, 1981.
Simons, Helen and Cathryn A. Hoyt, eds. Hispanic Texas: A Historical Guide. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.
Sonnichsen, C. L. Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande. 2 vols. El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press, 1968.
Timmons, W. H. El Paso: A Borderlands History. El Paso, TX: Texas Western Press, 1990.