Bhutan, a tiny Asian country hidden deep in the Himalayas, is a lot closer to El Paso than most people realize.
Since 1917, this distant country’s majestic style has inspired the distinctive architecture on the University of Texas at El Paso campus. Modeled after Bhutanese “dzongs,” or fortresses that contain both government offices and monasteries, nearly all of the university’s 97 buildings are characterized by high inward sloping walls and flared rooftops, which resemble the structures throughout Bhutan’s rugged mountain terrain.
“UTEP is a pillar of the community,” said Max E. Grossman, Ph.D., assistant professor of art history at UTEP and vice chair of the El Paso County Historical Commission. “And to understand the origins of this campus – how it came to be and under what circumstances – is important.”
As part of UTEP’s Centennial Celebration in 2014, Grossman will lead a public tour on Jan. 18 that will explore the campus’ Bhutanese architecture.
The tour is the first in a yearlong series of new themed walking tours of the campus that will offer the public an intimate look at different segments of the university, from athletic facilities to state-of-the-art research laboratories.
“We wanted a way to showcase the rich history, the unique architecture and the great stories that have come out of UTEP over the past century,” said Maribel Villalva, director of UTEP’s Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens. “What better way to do this than to create a series of themed walking tours that give audiences a behind-the-scenes look at the university.”
Grossman will take visitors on a journey back to April 1914 when the article “Castles in the Air” was published in National Geographic Magazine. It showcased the first-ever published photographs of the ancient kingdom of Bhutan.
The images captured the attention of Kathleen Worrell, wife of Steve Worrell, the first dean of the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy (now UTEP). Kathleen Worrell persuaded her husband to adopt Bhutan’s 17th century architecture on campus. Construction of the first four buildings – now called Old Main, Graham Hall, Quinn Hall and Prospect Hall – began in 1917.
“You have to imagine what that must have been like in April 1917,” Grossman said. “They’re starting to erect these buildings in the Bhutanese monastic style during World War I, at a time when Texas was segregated and women could not vote. Texas was a traditional place and embracing this Himalayan architectural style was a very progressive, radical choice on the part of the local administration.”
The Jan. 18 tour will start with a 45-minute presentation at the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts. Grossman will talk about iconic architect Henry C. Trost, the introduction of the Bhutanese style on campus, and the historical context of the foundation of the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy and its early development.
Grossman will then guide visitors through a 30-minute tour of original buildings, including Vowell Hall, which was built in 1919 and served as a women’s dormitory until 1927.
In addition to Trost, other architects of campus buildings include Percy McGhee, who designed the El Paso Centennial Museum in 1936, and Robert Leon White, who collaborated with McGhee on the original Administration and Library Building (now the Geological Sciences Building) two years later.
While some of the buildings are more Bhutanese in style than others, nearly all have similar characteristics that reflect distinctive Bhutanese architecture – cantilever roofs, deep-set windows and circular mosaic designs known as mandalas.
Page, the architectural firm behind the Health Sciences and Nursing Building that opened in 2011, was influenced by the design standards of the Department of Urban Development and Engineering Services (DUDES) of the Bhutanese government.
UTEP’s unique architecture offers visitors the beauty and serenity of Bhutan, without having to travel more than 8,000 miles.
Every Tuesday morning, Mark Lusk, Ed.D., and seven members of Run El Paso pass through campus during their six-mile run. They stop at the Chihuahuan Desert Gardens to drink water and spin the Bhutanese prayer wheel, a gift from the people of Bhutan.
“The architecture is very pleasing to the eye and calming,” said Lusk, a social work professor. “The Bhutanese theme has a very serene feeling to it that sits well in the desert.”
For a complete tour schedule, visit centennial.utep.edu/tours.html.
Make Plans: UTEP Architecture Tour
A free guided tour for the public will start 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18, in the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts auditorium. Free parking will be available in the Sun Bowl Parking Garage (PG-1).
Seating is limited. Please RSVP to the Texas Trost Society at email@example.com.
Laura Acosta is a writer in UTEP's Office of University Communications.