1926 Mary S. Hills Block

In 1871, St. Louis investor and Real Estate tycoon Robert Campbell purchased at auction 3/4 interest in the Ponce Ranch, on which the City of El Paso was eventually to be built. He continued to hold on to his interest in the land until his passing in the late 1870s. In 1879, William S. Hills was sent to El Paso by Campbell's Estate as its attorney and agent to arrange terms with parties disputing the title to the land. Upon arrival in El Paso, Hills wrote to a St. Louis Globe-Telegraph reporter: "People in El Paso have no idea of the golden opportunity within their grasp. If your business men will only arouse themselves they will find that region down there a new El Dorado".

After working on the Campbell Estate's interests, he returned to St. Louis - but then, realizing the possibilities for fortune and adventure in the southwest, he moved permanently to El Paso with his wife and son in 1882.

Between 1882 and 1885, Hills had established himself as a respected independent Real Estate agent. In September 1885, Hills hired architect and builder John J. Stewart ("J.J. Stuart" in the source article) to design and build a number of retail structures and a residence for him on the site of the current Mary Hills building. Included was a two-story retail structure which many claim to be the first two-story building in El Paso; however that is disputed.

In 1886 he created the Campbell Real Estate Company, and began to sell off the old Robert Campbell land, piece by piece, still estimated to include 3/4 of El Paso's private property. With new found wealth, Hills, along with his wife Mary, rose in prominance in the political and social circles of El Paso. In 1887, they left El Paso for an extended stay in Europe, returning to the Sun City in October of 1889. 

Hills, known in the papers as W.S. Hills, diversified his wealth by creating new businesses and partnerships, and was most known as the owner of saddlemakers Andrews & Hills, Hills & Austin, and finally the El Paso Saddlery Company. He also invested in the erection of a number of early El Paso buildings - including the Monarch Block, an El Paso office building that still stands today (on El Paso Street), and was the first El Paso home of the County Courthouse.

In the late 1890s, Hills became very ill and was hospitalized in Charleston, SC for an extended period. He passed away at 3:30am on March 26, 1898, a true El Paso pioneer.

Mrs. W.S. Hills continued to live in El Paso for another two decades, until she moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan to live with her daughter Florence and her son-in-law Dudley Waters in April, 1919. Her love for El Paso was unquestioned, and she continued to visit the Sun City at least annually to visit friends and inspect the bundle of Stewart-designed buildings she owned between San Antonio and Texas Avenue. She was known to look lovingly at Texas Ave. and say "That used to be my back yard!"

On August 23, 1925, Mrs. Hills and Dudley Waters announced that they would do a complete remodel of their buildings on San Antonio, described as "Block 5 of the Mills Map", which she lovingly referred to as The Hills Homestead. They hired as their agent A.P. Coles. She announced that the buildings would be remodeled into a Spanish style of architecture. However, when she and Waters visited El Paso in November of the same year, she quickly changed her mind and decided to build a new structure instead. She stated: "The buildings there now are not in keeping with the value of the sites and with modern El Paso".

She, along with Mr. Waters, returned to Grand Rapids, leaving A.P. Coles in charge to direct the erection of her new building. Coles hired the firm of Trost & Trost to design the structure, which was to be a two-story office and retail block. 

The demolition of the old buildings were an El Paso media sensation. Bricks from William Hill's original two-story structure were found to have been stamped with the year of their manufacture: 1881 and 1882. Ground was finally broken for the new building on May 13, 1926 at a 3:30pm ceremony. It was finished by the following December, and was christened the Mary S. Hills Block.

The building, of course, stands today and is popularly known as the W.S. Hills Building, one of Trost & Trost's most iconic structures. It is a two-story imposing ediface, designed in what is described as a Second Renaissance Revival. The trapezoidal building, designed to front both Texas Avenue and San Antonio, cost $100,000 to erect and utilizes a concrete foundation, reinforced concrete walls and marble revetment. The 32,000 square foot building has a 110 foot frontage on Texas, a 102 foot frontage on San Antonio, and is 84 feet deep on its west end and 125 feet deep on the east.

The construction contractor was J.E. Morgan, and the foundation was designed to support another six floors. Mrs. Hills realized that this particular section of her beloved city could no longer expand -- except upward.

The Mary S. Hills Block is currently owned by the In*Situ architectural firm and is slated for a restoration and expansion (upwards!) into retail and loft apartments. Read their description of the building and its upcoming reno at http://insituarc.weebly.com/ws-hills-building.html.

In the 1930s, the second story of the building was utilized as the studio of El Paso artist Tom Lea. Read a description of Lea's use of the building at the El Paso Museum of History's DIGIE: https://www.digie.org/media/44506?page=264


Text, research and modern photography provided to Sketchclub.net by Mark Stone, citing the above referenced links and period newspaper clippings accessed at newspapers.com 

Photograph taken by Mark Stone 2020

Photograph taken by Mark Stone 2020

Photograph taken by Mark Stone 2020

Photograph taken by Mark Stone 2020

Photograph taken by Mark Stone 2020

Photograph taken by Mark Stone 2020

Photograph taken by Mark Stone 2020