Research Packet and Narrative by: Vanessa Mendoza and Dr. George D. Torok
Honors Project, Spring 2002
National Endowment for the Humanities Historical Markers Project
Historical Narrative: Plaza Hotel (formerly the Hilton Hotel )
The Plaza Hotel, located at 106 Mills Avenue in downtown El Paso, is a fine example of the modernistic Art Deco style of the 1920s. It was designed by Henry C. Trost (1860-1933) for the Hilton Hotel chain and served as one of the city’s most luxurious hotels. In 1980, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel was designed and constructed for Conrad N. Hilton (1887-1979) who created one of the first international hotel chains. He was a native of San Antonio, New Mexico who entered the hotel business in the 1910s. He acquired and renovated prominent old hotels, built a series of new hotels in the west, and eventually expanded his empire around the world. During the 1920s, Hilton concentrated on building hotels in Texas. El Paso’s Hilton Hotel, the eighth hotel in the Hilton chain, was the first high rise, the largest and the most elaborate. Hilton went on to develop 188 hotels in 38 U.S. cities and 54 cities abroad.Image caption: The Plaza Hotel in downtown El Paso, Texas was once a luxurious Hilton Hotel. Image provided by George D. Torok
The Hilton Hotel Company invested heavily in the project. In 1929 they arranged for a ninety-nine year lease of the property at Mills and Oregon Streets at an estimated cost of 4.9 million dollars and the R.E. McKee Company was awarded the contract for the building which was estimated to cost more than 1.1 million dollars to construct and furnish.[i] The new hotel was built on the site of the Hotel Sheldon, constructed in 1888, and once regarded as the “best hotel in the southwest.”[ii] The hotel was designed by renowned El Paso architect Henry C. Trost. Trost was the principle designer for the architectural firm Trost and Trost. He arrived in El Paso in 1903 and during the next thirty years he developed some of the region’s most striking and unique buildings. Trost was greatly influenced by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright and mastered a wide variety of popular building styles. He was also a pioneer in the use of reinforced concrete. He designed more than 650 buildings in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, 200 of them in El Paso, during his career.[iii]
Trost’s Hilton Hotel remains an excellent example of the Art Deco style popular in the 1920s. The seventeen story structure (a fifteen story hotel tower on a 2 story block) was described as combining “semi-modernistic lines” with Indian designs and towered over the center of the city.
The facade of the first two floors featured Art Deco designs and the tower was roofed with green terra cotta tile.[iv] The interior areas were described as “ultra-modern” with rooms featuring fully electric lighting and ceiling fans, radios, and private baths in each room.[v] When opened in July 1930, the new Hilton Hotel was touted as a virtual “fairlyland” with “exotic Spanish decorations,” “bellhops garbed in Spanish costumes,” “mazes of chrysanthemuns, dahlias, and bluebonnets” throughout the lobby.[vi] Hundreds attended the opening ceremonies, thousands toured the building, and the entire event was broadcast by local radio stations.
Although Hilton began construction of the hotel just as the Great Depression hit, it survived the 1930s and underwent several renovations. In 1936 one hundred rooms were air-conditioned and refurnished and an entirely new cocktail lounge was constructed.[vii] By the 1940s it had established a reputation for elegance and became a social center for the city. Conrad Hilton’s mother resided in the hotel in the 1940s and Elizabeth Taylor briefly lived there during her marriage to Conrad’s son, Nicky. Several prominent El Pasoans also called the Hilton Hotel their home.[viii]
The Hilton Hotel remained an impressive downtown landmark until 1963 when it was sold and a new Hilton was built at the El Paso International Airport.[ix] The old Hilton re-opened as the Plaza Hotel and continued operations until 1991. In 1980, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Since that time the ground floors have been occupied by retailers but the more than 200 hotel rooms have remained vacant. The historic hotel building remains a prominent landmark on the city’s San Jacinto Plaza.[x]
[i] (El Paso, TX) Post, Oct. 24, 1929.
[ii] (El Paso, TX) Herald, Aug. 28, 1929.
[iii] Lloyd C. and June Marie F. Englebrecht, Henry C. Trost: Architect of the Southwest (El Paso, TX 1981), 31-35.
[iv] “Plaza Hotel,” http://atlas.thc.state.tx.us.
[v] Kay Rothenberg, “The El Paso Hilton,” Pacific Coast Record XXI (March 1931), 7.
[vi] (El Paso, TX) Herald, July 18, 1930.
[vii] (El Paso, TX) Herald, Dec. 2, 1936; (El Paso, TX) Herald-Post, April 22, 1937.
[viii] “Plaza Hotel,” http://atlas.thc.state.tx.us.
[ix] (El Paso, TX) Times, Apr. 10, 2001.
[x] (El Paso, TX) Times, July 19, 1995.
Texas Historical Commision (Frank Gorman)
Metz, Leon Claire. El Paso Guided Through Time. El Paso, Texas: Mangan Books, 1999.
El Paso Herald Post 27 Nov. 1909.
"Heavy Loss in Early Blaze." El Paso Herald Post 8 Mar. 1909:4.
"Trost and Trost Architects." El Paso Vertical Files.
"What Would Old Timers Think." El Paso Herald Post 9 July 1909.
"Work Starts on Caples Building." El Paso Herald Post 16 Apr. 1909.
Timmons, W.H. El Paso: A Borderlands History. Texas Western Press, 1990.
De Wetter, Mardee Belding. "Revolutionary El Paso: 1910-1917." Password Vol.3 Apr.1955: 46, 50.
El Paso Community Foundation, "Downtown Historic Walking Tour: El Paso." El Paso, Texas, 2000.
Coronado, Juan Sybert. "Caples Building Trumpets Society's Ills." El Paso Times 2 June 1996: 9A.
Metz, Claire Leon. El Paso Guided Through Time. El Paso, Texas: Mangan Books, 1999.