Buildings have stories to tell and Old Main, the oldest building on the UTEP campus, has more than most. Nestled against the mountain on Circle Drive, Old Main was built in 1917 and was the first of the original five buildings built on the current campus. Between 1917 and 2012 Old Main has served a variety of purposes and housed several different schools, students, and faculty. Having been the first completed structure, Main facilitated classroom instruction, faculty offices, and administrative personnel until other buildings were complete.
During the earliest years of the building, the front steps acted as a gathering ground for rallies, meetings, and competitions. Not having a facility large enough to assemble a sizable amount of people, the students and faculty congregated on the steps of Main for a multitude of reasons until an assembly hall was built. Another function of Main from 1920-1921 was the library. The school’s small collection of books was housed in Main until Kelly Hall was complete in 1921 and became the library.
During the 1930’s and 1940’s Main had many different functions. Professor Howard E. Quinn maintained a small museum in the basement of Main from 1931 until the Centennial Museum opened in 1937. Also during this time the Co-op operated a snack and souvenir shop on the east end of the first floor of the building. The small store sold sandwiches, candy, soft drinks, cigars, and college memorabilia. The students would gather inside the store and in the courtyard outside of Main to socialize.
The name Main remained the designation of the building until 1950 when it was changed to Math & Physics building. The title changed again in 1967 to its current name, Old Main. In 1982 Old Main was listed as an official Texas Historic Landmark by the Texas Historic Commission. The Official Historic Medallion from the Texas Historic Commission is visible at the front exterior entrance of the building. After temporarily closing for a $2 million dollar renovation, Old Main reopened in 1996 housing its current occupants, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. The renovation added more windows to the first floor and updated the interior to be more airy, bright, and contemporary. Cheryl Howard, chairwoman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in 1996 told the El Paso Times, “The only thing that remained is the staircase.”
Walking through Old Main today feels similar to strolling through a museum of local history. Photographs of the building’s history decorate the walls in the hallways and stairwells, documenting the stories of the various students and faculty to have entered the building. The foyer of Old Main contains display cases exhibiting artifacts and photographic documents from the Three Rivers Archeology site in New Mexico. The building accommodates the administration, faculty, teaching assistants, and students in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. In addition to offices and classrooms, Old Main quarters an anthropology lab and anthropological specimens.
The oldest building on UTEP’s campus has an incredible and interesting history. Old Main was the first to be built and the originator of the Bhutanese architectural theme. The building has had innumerable faculty, staff, and students wander through its halls. It has been a library, museum, administration building, assembly site, store, and social center. Old Main’s classrooms have held classes in engineering, math, physics, sociology, anthropology, and other subjects. Its history is nearly as old as the school. Whether Old Main’s stories are held by the mountain stones used to build it or told by the building’s inhabitants, those narratives have become the legends of historical UTEP.
[Sources: Hamilton, Nancy, UTEP: A Pictorial History of the University of Texas at El Paso, 1988; Fugate, Francis, Frontier College: Texas Western at El Paso, The First Fifty Years, 1964; and El Paso Times, September 4, 1996.]
Ashley Swarthout was a student in the Masters of Arts in Teaching English program at UTEP. She graduated in May 2013 and is now teaches dual credit at Chapin High School.