Research Packet and Narrative by: Adriana Davidson, Tommy Vicks, and Dr. George D. Torok
Honors Project, Spring 2002
National Endowment for the Humanities Historical Markers Project
Marker Text: Dave’s Pawn Shop
216-218 South El Paso Street is the last surviving false-front structure building in the city of El Paso. It was built as American El Paso underwent a great transformation from a dusty adobe village to a thriving city following the arrival of the railroad in 1881. As one of the earliest streets in the city, El Paso Street became a bustling center of commerce running from the plaza on San Francisco Street to the ferry landing at the Rio Grande. In 1882, William J. Montgomery (1833 - 1899) built this structure on a vacant lot between two buildings. Montgomery made use of the two building’s existing walls constructing only a roof, floor, front and back. He ran a new wall down the middle, creating two new addresses, 216 and 218 El Paso Street.
The Montgomery building was typical of western frontier architecture of the late 19th century. It featured a false-front to make it appear taller and more like commercial buildings found in the east. Originally, the building housed a drug store and book store. There was a wooden sidewalk covered by a wooden roof and a hitching post for horses. This address has been in continuous use since 1882 making it the oldest surviving commercial structure in the city of El Paso.
Image caption: Dave's Pawn Shop site, Image provided by George D. Torok
Historical Narrative: Dave’s Pawn Shop 216-18 El Paso Street
216-218 South El Paso Street, a double building now occupied by Dave’s Pawn Shop, is the last surviving false-front structure and the oldest existing business building in the city of El Paso. The building design and construction is typical of western commercial architecture in the booming railroad era of the late 19th century. Situated on the what was once the main commercial thoroughfare of the city, it continues to represent part of the rich frontier heritage of El Paso and has remained in continuous use for more than one hundred and twenty years.
The story of 216-218 South El Paso Street begins on May 13, 1881 when the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in El Paso and two other railroads were approaching the outskirts of the county. A great commercial building boom followed as lumber and brick structures, some two stories high, began replacing adobe ones. In following months, El Paso underwent a great transformation from a dusty village to a thriving city and El Paso Street became a bustling center of commerce.[i] South El Paso Street, which connected the plaza at San Francisco with a ferry crossing at the Rio Grande, became the an important commercial center. In this boomtown atmosphere, William J. Montgomery (1833 - 1899) acquired a small vacant lot on South El Paso Street and created a structure between two buildings that were situated north and south of the property. Montgomery made use of the two building’s existing walls constructing only a roof, floor, front and back. He ran a new wall down the middle, creating two new addresses, 216 and 218 El Paso Street.[ii]
The outward appearance of the Montgomery building was typical of those built in western towns during the railroad boom of the late 19th century. Developers wanted railroad towns to look as much like eastern towns as possible so stone and lumber quickly adobe and log as the primary building materials. Timber was scarce in El Paso but the railroad brought milled lumber, much of it from the Cloudcroft area. Railroads also brought pressed tin, cast iron, glass and hardware that were used to simulate styles popular in the east.[iii] The Montgomery building had one ground-level floor but false-fronts were added to make the building appear taller. The false-fronts were topped by a bracketed cornice typical of the Italianate style popular at the time. This created the impression that the building was larger and housed more businesses and people, similar to the main commercial streets found in eastern towns.[iv] In front of the original structure there was a wooden sidewalk covered by a wooden roof and hitching posts for horses. We know exactly what the exterior of the Montgomery building looked like in 1882 from a photograph taken by F. Parker who documented many of the changes taking place in the city during that period.[v]
The two addresses have undergone many interior and exterior renovations over the years. They have have housed drugstores, restaurants, shoemakers, and clothing stores. With the arrival of the automobile and the paving of streets, the wooden sidewalks, post, and roofs were removed and conventional sidewalks were constructed.[vi] Today, the wooden facade of the building lies beneath a modern sign but the cornice is clearly visible. 216-218 South El Paso Street is a classic example of western architecture from the boom era of the 1880s. It is the oldest surviving false-front structure in El Paso and is one of the few remaining structures from the original commercial heart of the city.
[i] W.H. Timmons, El Paso: A Border History (El Paso, TX 1990), 171-72; C.L. Sonnichsen, Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande (El Paso, TX 1968), I, 255.
[ii] Dena Hirsch, “216/218 South El Paso Street: A Building History,” (unpublished paper, 1984), 14.
For more information on Texas architecture please see: Handbook of Texas article.
Texas Architecture Survey: An Inventory of its Photographs and Papers (UT Austin) http://www.lib.utexas.edu/taro/utaaa/00084/aaa-00084.html
Freed, Elaine. Preserving the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.
Hirsch, Dena. “216/218 South El Paso Street.” unpublished paper, 1984.
Metz, Leon. El Paso: Guided Through Time. El Paso, TX: Mangan Books, 1999.
Sonnichsen, C.L. Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande. 2 vols. El Paso, TX: University of Texas at El Paso, 1980.
Timmons, W.H. El Paso: A Borderlands History. El Paso, TX: University of Texas at El Paso, 1990.