Time fades some things, brightens others

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Old building evokes memories of a youthful explorer

Mike Scanlon

Mike Scanlon

Rio Grande Digital

I’m sure the photos I’ve taken of the old Kress Building in Downtown El Paso number in the thousands. I can visualize the photo I want, but it somehow always eludes my camera.

If I had the artistic eye and the technical knowledge of a great photographer — like my friend, Joel Salcido, for example — I’d have that photo after all these decades of trying. But what I’ve been able to put on film, or pixels nowadays, never has been the image that made me say, “That’s it!”

So being older and wiser now, I arrive at the conclusion that the run-down old art-deco structure on Mills Street across from the San Jacinto Plaza — spectacular architectural achievement that it is — holds meaning for me that reaches beyond its bricks and mortar.

I think it’s about another time, when a curious, adventurous teenager roamed these streets and back alleys of the El Paso-Juárez borderplex, exploring the gritty landscape of neglected infrastructure and sometimes-dubious specimens of humanity who inhabited it. I was convinced that this place was here just for me.

A college student by day and a self-modeled street kid by choice, I came to know this place — this divided city — in a most intimate way. I knew the nooks and crannies and the characters who played in this drama set uniquely on an international stage.

I knew the aging coffee shop waitresses still clinging to their long-held jobs. I knew vendors of all stripes, prostitutes, bus drivers, trolley passengers, fellow adventurers and people who would cross the border many times a day. It was so much easier to do back then.

Joel Salcido, my photographer friend, could create the right image, but he would find it difficult to tell the story of El Paso-Juárez in a few frames. Born in Juárez and raised in El Paso, Joel is one of those who “get” the place we affectionately nickname El Chuco. Joel knows the futility of trying to depict something that dwells in your heart.

The Kress building was special in its subtlety. Decorated like a birthday cake — or maybe more like the working women you’d encounter hereabouts — it was flashy not in an intrusive way, but more passive. You have to take the time to look at it to appreciate its cleverness, the way a curious youngster would take in all the details of a world he is destined to become a part of. I was the only one who could see the ornate features of that building. Wasn’t I?

I’ve never been inside those walls, so I can’t say whether the interior matches its public face. I suspect, however, that an endless series of remodels, including less-than-successful, low-budget do-it-yourself efforts, have left its rooms and corridors in disarray. When someone new gains control over a space like that, they inevitably have their own vision for “improving” it — or adding their personal touches to something already so well done.

The Kress Building was constructed in 1937 as the El Paso home of the Kress five-and-dime. Designed by Architect Edward Sibbert, the building is said to mirror the Anglo, Indian, Spanish and Mexican cultures of El Paso.

Alas, the building — most recently home to a Chinese restaurant but now vacant — has lost its luster. Its facade is dirty, tiles are cracked, windows are broken. Yet its essence remains in tact. The city of El Paso is taking steps — aggressive steps, reportedly — to preserve and restore it.

I hope so. I hope this building will stand for a long time to come. I hope it will be part of the inspiration a new generation of adventurous youth will find in their quest to know themselves and their role in all of this. I hope they find it to their liking.

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