Museum History    

2009 Photo of the Centennial MuseumThe Centennial Museum, pictured right, is El Paso’s first museum. It was built with funds from the Texas Centennial Commission, which allocated money all around the state in 1936 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Texas. The citizens of El Paso had been working since at least 1918 to establish a museum, and in the 1920s several committees worked on plans, but there was no money. The Centennial celebration provided the opportunity – although, ironically, today’s El Paso did not exist in 1836.

The original grant was $1000. El Paso’s centennial committee went to Austin to ask for at least $75,000; the editor of the El Paso Herald Post, Wallace Perry, gave a dramatic presentation, saying that if $1000 was all that El Paso would get: “I am going to ask that the allocation be cut to $100 and . . . a monument be erected to Texas’ Forgotten City, on the steps of the capitol here in Austin, of adobe brick, so that, in this moist climate of chilly receptions, the monument itself may soon be forgotten.” Editor Perry’s oratory persuaded, or embarrassed, the commissioners, who increased the grant to $50,000.

The city’s centennial committee immediately decided to use the money for a museum; the only controversy was where. Many people wanted it in the downtown area but the city government indicated it could not guarantee it would always maintain the museum. The committee approached the College of Mines and the University of Texas Board of Regents agreed to be responsible for the museum. The new museum was to be built on ten and a half acres of city land next to the College, and the College would pay for the curator’s salary and other operating costs.

The committee then turned to practicalities, and chose Percy McGhee as the architect. McGhee and an advisory committee located the museum at the west end of College (now University) Avenue. The existing Bhutanese style of the campus was used for the new building, which was given a U-shape, the first non-rectangular building on campus. Two stone urns resembling Bhutanese prayer wheels adorned the entrance steps, also a first on campus.

The Lintel which sits above the main entrance to the Centennial MuseumEl Paso artist Tom Lea, Jr. drew the design, pictured right, for the stone lintel over the massive front doors. It commemorates the tradition of Cabeza de Vaca exploring the Paso del Norte in 1536. An 8-ton block of Texas limestone was used for the lintel, and carved by an artisan at the quarry.

R. E. McKee of El Paso won the construction bid. In order to stay within the $50,000 budget, his firm had to eliminate the stucco on the building and reduce the size of the basement, providing a much smaller storage and work area than originally projected. The work began on June 4, 1936 and was completed on October 22, just over 4 months.

Dr. Howard Quinn, the head of the Department of Geology, agreed to be the interim curator. Exhibits poured into the museum; El Pasoans were anxious to have their collections displayed, and several benefactors purchased material for the collection. The Centennial opened on the weekend of April 23-25, 1937.

In August 1937 Dr. William Strain became the curator, and remained in that position for ten years. He had been assistant curator at the University of Oklahoma museum. Dr. Strain oversaw a wide range of exhibits, and also set up a dormitory in the museum basement, where two students lived in exchange for service as janitors and guards! Dr. Strain’s service is commemorated in the Strain Gallery of Paleontology.

Museum Gardens in BloomUntil the El Paso International Museum of Art opened in 1943, the Centennial often had art exhibits. The sketches entered in the competition for the Post Office mural, won by Tom Lea, Jr., were displayed in the Centennial. A gallery is named for Tom Lea, who had several other exhibits there. Urbici Soler, who sculpted the statue on Mt. Cristo Rey, stored many of his small pieces in the museum and exhibited them twice.

Over the post-war years the focus of the museum shifted to regional natural history, including geology – appropriately for a campus that got its start as a School of Mines. Today’s museum has about 73,000 items in the collections.

The Chihuahuan Desert Gardens, a small section shown at the right, were formally initiated in 1999. After almost a decade of work by Botanical Curator and founder Wynn Anderson, the Gardens have over 800 species, one of the largest “captive” assemblages of Chihuahuan Desert Plants in the world.

The Centennial Museum will celebrate its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2012.

With appreciation to the El Paso County Historical Society, which published a fine history of the initial years of the museum, written by Esther Thompson Cornell.

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