by Myrna Zanetell
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Artist restores landmark Upper Valley wood beams
Those who drive the old Route 20 in the Upper Valley probably have noticed the charming white adobe house and its brick companion on the southeast corner of Sunset and Doniphan.
These buildings have housed a series of small businesses including the White Spur Cleaners; a small gift shop and later a fabric store. However, few travelers are aware of the historical significance of these buildings, which were once part of the vast land holdings of pioneer businessman and promoter Zach White. And very few have taken time to view the beautiful carvings that adorn the front and side vigas (wooden beams) of the home.
Born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, White was the youngest in a family of 21 children. He received only a grade school education, but White’s true talents lay in knowing how to work with people. Seeking to better his life by traveling out west, White came to El Paso by stagecoach in 1881, just a few months before the railroad arrived in what was then a dusty border town with a population of only 736 souls.
Quickly realizing the potential of El Paso as a gateway to Juárez and Mexico, White began investing a $10,000 nest egg he had earned in Dallas and Waco. His first business ventures were a grocery and later a hardware store. However, his future wealth would come from investing in real estate holdings including the International Bridge between the cities of Juárez and El Paso.
Dedicated to public service as well, he helped install electric lighting and natural gas in the city, but his most visible achievement was ownership of the Camino Real Hotel. He was also instrumental in bringing about the construction of Elephant Butte Dam.
Attracted by the low price of land north of downtown, mainly sandy hillsides and swamps that many considered worthless, White purchased much of what is today known as the Upper Valley. His holdings went north from what is now Sunland Park Drive, and he later owned or leased much of the land all the way north to the New Mexico border.
In 1918, White donated 126 acres of farm land, not far from his Riverbend Ranch in the area of present day Frontera Street, for the use of the newly authorized El Paso Country Club. In 1928 White received authorization to straighten a section of the Rio Grande, removing a major loop near what is now a Boy Scout camp. This provided better flood control and increased the prospects of home building.
Because there were no utility services, he drilled wells in the area where Stonehedge and the Willows homes are currently located, and the water was pumped to a large tank situated at what is now 150 Sunset. .
The brick building fronting on Doniphan, now painted a pale green, was constructed in 1929 to house the White Water Works, which provided drinking water to the area. The historic white adobe, added in 1936, served as the home for the onsite water manager and his family. The beams used in its construction were originally part of the International Bridge owned by White.
When the bridge was dismantled, the large timbers were used for several Manhattan Heights homes and also for the vigas in this adobe building. Local artist and woodworker Eduardo Rodriguez created a series of carvings on the beam on the front of the building that depict the control of the region beginning with indigenous people, then the Spanish, later Texans and eventually the railroad.
When White passed away at age 81 in January 1932, Paul Harvey Sr. purchased the White Farm. The Harvey family has continued to develop land in the area including building the Substation Shopping area and combining the brick and adobe buildings into one unit that currently houses the EP Riverbend Development offices.
About 2 ½ years ago, the current building owner, Will Harvey Jr., and his interior designer Sally Dinsmoor commissioned local artist Lisa Matta Brown to refurbish the main beam and smaller side beams.
At the time Brown undertook this project, her only expectations were to strip off the old paint and sap which was deeply embedded in the beams, and then to sand the surface until smooth enough to repaint.
“This task alone took me about a week to complete,” she said. “My husband, Dan, was helping me with the scaffolding, and he asked me, “Lisa, did you know there were carved images on the beams?” “I knew there was something there but I had no idea how significant they were until I got a lot of the old varnish off. And to my amazement I saw that the main beam on the Sunset side had an image of a man. Once I started to paint the carved images I could clearly see the historical timeline carved into the front beam.
“In reworking the images, I wanted to keep the beams as nostalgic as possible and keeping that in mind, I toned down my color palette because I love to use bright colors in my artwork. It took me approximately four weeks to complete the project. In the beginning, I had been a bit intimidated by the unusual scope of the project, but in the end I was totally satisfied with the outcome. It taught me, “Never say never — any opportunity to paint serves as a blank canvas on which to create!!!”
Art Museum renovation
For those of you who may still not be aware, the 2nd floor of the El Paso Museum of Art, which includes the Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Gallery, the Dorrance and Olga Roderick Gallery, the Tom Lea Gallery, the Peter and Margaret de Wetter Gallery and the Kress Collection, is currently closed for renovations. Its reopening Sept. 29 will be celebrated with a must-see exhibition entitled, “The El Paso Museum of Art: 60 years of Collecting.”
With the closure of the 2nd floor galleries May 13, the museum undertook one of the largest renovations since moving into the building in 1998.
Museum Director Victoria Ramirez explains, “We have been in this building for more than 20 years, so now it is time to bring some things up to date. The City of El Paso has dedicated approximately $450,000 for upgrades, which will ensure that the museum will continue to be a safe and secure place not only for the art but for the public as well. These will include a new fire system; work on the roof, new floors and some moveable walls, which will allow us to bring new interpretations and insights to our permanent collection.”
“Our permanent collection is comprised of more than 7,000 items and sadly, we are only able to display 3 to 5 percent at any one time,” Ramirez continued. “As part of our renovation we will take advantage of some moveable walls, which will allow us to create some smaller, more intimate spaces. These will make it possible for us to display more of our works on paper, which are a major portion of our collection, on permanent display.”
The museum’s first floor will remain open and will feature a series of robust exhibits that include “Visions of a Borderland,” paintings and illustrations created by Mexican artist and illustrator Antonio Castro. The exhibition showcases illustrations Castro made for El Paso’s longtime Popular Department Store, and later for books about the region published locally by Cinco Puntos Press.
Opening Aug. 23 and running through Jan. 5 will be the exhibition “Tom Lea and World War II,” showcasing works by Tom Lea that have not been shown before in this area. These include paintings, watercolor illustrations and preparatory drawings on loan from the renowned U S. Army Center of Military History at Fort Belvoir, Va., plus key pieces by Lea from the EPMA permanent collection.
A new program that runs through Sept. 15 is “La Sala” (The Living Room), which features a Community Art Studio where children and adults can watching artists-in-residence as they work in their individual mediums, and attend a series of workshops on how to create their own art as well. Pop-up performances by dancers and musicians will round out this inviting programming. For more information go to the museum’s website: www.epma.art
Myrna Zanetell is a freelance writer
specializing in the visual arts.
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