Perhaps nothing imbues a town with its sense of place more than its architecture. Old Mesilla, near Las Cruces, with its ageless adobe and Spanish-Mexican stucco
vernacular haciendas and stores surrounding the plaza, serves as a perfect example. And, arguably, no individual had a greater impact on the look and feel in numerous cities of Southern New Mexico and the desert Southwest than Henry Charles Trost.
The Ohio native employed his adroit architectural skills from the late 1880s through the early 1930s to design schools, churches, hotels, office buildings, libraries, theaters, and residences that influenced the early look of such locales as Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Tucson, and especially El Paso, headquarters of his family’s wildly successful business. Today, a century later, more than 100 Trost designed structures still stand.
Trost & Trost Architects and Engineers, composed of Henry, brothers Adolphus (structural engineer) and Gustavus (architect), and nephew George would come to reign as the preeminent architectural firm in the Southwest from the turn of the 20th century through the 1940s.
Before its days were done, Trost & Trost would boast more than 600 buildings from Arizona and Texas to New Mexico and Old Mexico. Henry cut his architectural teeth from 1888 to 1896 as an ornamental metal designer and draftsman, establishing his reputation with admittance into the Chicago Architectural Club.
As a draftsman for the firm of Adler and Sullivan, he studied under Louis H. Sullivan and worked among many apprentices, including Frank Lloyd Wright. Sullivan created the “Chicago School” of Early Modernist architecture, according to Lloyd and June Engelbrecht, authors of the 1981 book: Henry C. Trost: Architect of the Southwest.
After a few years plying his trade in Tucson, where he designed notable buildings such as the Owl Club, Henry headed to the booming borderland city of El Paso in 1903 to join Gustavus in his fledgling architectural and engineering enterprise.
Remarkably, a “living museum” of Trost & Trost structures exists today in El Paso’s old downtown thanks to Henry’s skilled designs and Adolphus’s innovative work in reinforced concrete that resulted in the erection of some of the tallest buildings in the world in those early days. Surrounding Pioneer Plaza are more than two dozen iconic Trost & Trost commercial buildings.
The Anson Mills Building, the largest reinforced concrete building at the time of its completion in 1911, and the Hilton Hotel (today’s Plaza Hotel), the first high-rise hotel built for Conrad Hilton in 1930 and where actress Elizabeth Taylor once lived, are just two of them.
Henry Trost is often described as a regional architect, but some Trost scholars feel that is giving the creative and accomplished architect short shrift. Eric Liefeld and Troy Ainsworth, Ph.D., who both reside in Las Cruces, are chief among those people.
Eric, a writer by vocation, is a restoration specialist who heads up Mesilla Valley Preservation, Inc. He has invested countless hours researching Trost’s legacy and seeking documentation of “suspect” Trost buildings. Troy, who studied architecture at Texas Tech, came to appreciate Trost’s genius while serving as El Paso’s historic preservation officer.
Today, he fills that same role for the City of Las Cruces. “Calling Trost a regional architect is a disservice to his credibility and his creativity,” says Eric. “One thing he understood was that the desert Southwest demanded the practice of good design that’s responsive to the environment. You have to take into account different
elevations and the arid desert conditions.” Eric notes that this was a time before air conditioning when many Americans headed to the Southwest seeking fresh air and a dry climate to fight off such consumptive ailments as tuberculosis. Eric adds that although Henry Trost reinterpreted various 19th-century architectural styles, he often added his own flair and designed buildings to take the climate and landscape into account.
Troy says that in Henry’s writings about what he called “Arid America,” the accomplished architect talks about employing a design-follows-function aesthetic. “Trost is considered a ‘green’ architect before the term was coined in modern times,” points out Troy. “How do you physically build if you’re in a warm environment and need to reflect heat but at the same time retain internal heat to be comfortable?
A big part of that is air circulation, eves, thick walls, and a large roof system. He’s very cognizant of these factors.” Henry came up with several clever innovations, including his patented SerVent door to allow the passing of items from hotel staff to guests without opening the main door, modified with vents that allowed for airflow that negated the need for transoms and tall ceilings. He also created an “inside-outside bed” combination that allowed an occupant to flip the indoor bed to take advantage of the outdoor air.
The prolific architect took some of his design cues from early Spanish architecture which had been patterned after Native American building styles. Henry, however, was a master at adapting to and sometime embellishing the various architectural styles: Pueblo Revival (Albuquerque’s demolished Franciscan Hotel), Mission Revival (Socorro’s Val Verde Hotel), Prairie School (Trost’s El Paso residence), Spanish Renaissance (New Mexico State University’s Goddard Hall), Classical Revival (El Paso High), Spanish Moorish (former Alhambra Theater, El Paso), and Art/Pueblo Deco (Luhrs Tower, Phoenix, and Bassett Tower, El Paso).
“There is no one Trost style,” Eric explains. “H. C. Trost is a chameleon who can work seamlessly in any architectural style of the day.” Trost didn’t flinch when asked by the wife of the dean of the Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy (later University of Texas at El Paso) to come up with a look similar to the photos of structures in mountainous Bhutan that she had seen in National Geographic Magazine. Henry designed four of the original exotic-looking campus buildings with red tile roofs and flared-out corners constructed in 1917, including Old Main.
New Mexico State University (NMSU) wouldn’t look the same as it does today if not for Trost’s visionary design of the “horseshoe” in the heart of the campus flanked on three sides by academic buildings. His Spanish Renaissance style of architecture for the college’s original buildings set the style for structures that would follow. Picturesque Goddard Hall with its dome-topped tower tops the list of Trost’s extant campus buildings. Henry Trost’s design influence is unmistakable, as well, on the campuses of the University of New Mexico (UNM) and Western New Mexico University in Silver City (WNMU).
The UNM campus still sports a Trost original — the Women’s Residential Hall/Hokona South — a two-story structure now housing university administrative offices. WNMU features Trost’s Bowden, Fleming, and Light halls. Dozens of communities leading up to and just after New Mexico became a state in 1912 called on Trost & Trost to design their first public schools. A small number of the purported 200 schools designed by Trost remain in use, such as El Paso and Gadsen high schools, and the original 1910 Mesilla School that today serves as a community center.
Unfortunately, many of the Trost & Trost schools and other buildings have fallen to the wrecking ball over the last century. Las Cruces has demolished its fair share, which includes not only schools but commercial buildings as well. Troy and Eric lament the more recent loss of the Prairie School-style John O. Miller House, also known as the Pink House — one of only a few Trost-designed adobe structures — where Chick-fil-A stands today across from NMSU. In March, the last of three remaining Trost-designed clubhouses — the former 1929 Las Cruces Country Club clubhouse — was bulldozed due to pending development, despite local preservationists’ efforts to save it or have it relocated.
Far more than just edifices of adobe, wood, stucco, brick, and concrete, these ghosts of Trost & Trost represent what Eric refers to as “cultural touchstones” for the humans who once danced, dined, studied, and enjoyed life inside these venerable landmarks. The stories of the past that they told have been silenced, leaving it up to scholars and modern “detectives” to document what they can of these fading historical gems.
Do yourself a favor. Get out and see some of the iconic and timeless Trost hotels, homes, university halls, and office buildings that still proudly stand sentinel beneath a dazzling desert sun.
Story and photography by Rob McCorkle
Additional photos courtesy
Originally published in Neighbors magazine
Posted by LasCruces.com