Architecture Tours Offer Insight into UTEP’s Bhutanese Style

By on January 16, 2014

Joe Gomez felt like he had been transported to a different country his first day as a student at Texas Western College (now UTEP) in 1965.The Bhutanese-style buildings rising from the foothills of El Paso’s Franklin Mountains on the TWC campus reminded Gomez of a faraway kingdom.

Max E. Grossman, Ph.D., assistant professor of art history at UTEP, stands in front of Graham Hall, one of UTEP’s four original buildings. Grossman will lead a tour for UTEP students, faculty and staff on Jan. 28 that will explore the campus’ Bhutanese architecture. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

Max E. Grossman, Ph.D., assistant professor of art history at UTEP, stands in front of Graham Hall, one of UTEP’s four original buildings. Grossman will lead a tour for UTEP students, faculty and staff on Jan. 28 that will explore the campus’ Bhutanese architecture. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

“I was always extremely impressed by the architecture,” said Gomez, who was recognized as an outstanding alumnus in 2006 with a Gold Nugget Award from the College of Liberal Arts. “It (made) me feel like I was in a very neat place. I would close my eyes and see another country.”

Since 1917, the Kingdom of Bhutan 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.”

In honor of UTEP’s Centennial Celebration in 2014, the University will offer architecture tours of campus through January.

Grossman will lead a public tour on Saturday, Jan. 18, and a tour for UTEP faculty, students and staff at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28.

The architecture tour is the first in a yearlong series of new, themed walking tours of campus offering 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.”

More than 120 people have signed up for Grossman’s public tour, which 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 also touch upon the controversy surrounding Trost, the architect of record, who based his designs on sketches from Gibson & Robertson, a competing firm. Trost, who had designed the Anson Mills Building, the Cortez Hotel and El Paso High School, was eventually awarded the commission after Robert E. Vinson, President of The University of Texas, arranged for the Board of Regents to purchase the sketches from Gibson & Robertson for $930. The Board of Regents entrusted the buildings’ execution to Edward Kneezel, who served as superintendent of construction.

“The Bhutanese style of the original buildings is the product of several people – Kathleen Worrell’s idea, Gibson & Robertson’s sketches, Trost’s plans and Kneezel’s execution,” said Grossman. “The architectural plans and elevations were provided by Trost but they were directly inspired by sketches that had been purchased for him.”

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.

For a complete tour schedule, visit centennial.utep.edu/tours.html.

Public tours will also take place throughout January. Reservations must be made with Maribel Villalva at 915-747-6669 or mvillalva2@utep.edu.

Published at: http://newsuc.utep.edu/index.php/news-latest/1329-architecture-tours-offer-insight-into-utep-s-bhutanese-style.

Laura Acosta is a writer in UTEP's Office of University Communications.