1936 Federal Building

The old Federal Building, erected in 1889, was a Victorian gem designed by the Treasury Department's William A. Heret. The supervising architects on the ground here in El Paso were Albert Larmour from the inception of the project until May 7, 1889, when the project was handed over to Edward Kneezell; then Kneezell relenquished control to S.H. Buchanan only a month later, who supervised the erection of this building until completion early the following year. Less than 50 years later, the smallish structure, which housed the Post Office, Federal Courts and the Customs house, became woefully small. The Post Office was moved to its new home in 1918, and the rest of the occupants were moved to the new Federal Courthouse in 1936. The old Fed building was demolished starting December 29, 1936, and construction on the Kress Building, which replaced it, began the following March. 

The new 1936 Federal Courthouse, which stands today and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was in the planning stages starting early 1934. Initially, the commission to design this building was given to Percy McGhee, an accomplished El Paso architect with a stellar record in town. In 1935, McGhee formed a new (and short-lived) firm with Guy Fraser, so by the time the Courthouse was completed in 1936 Fraser was awarded equal credit in the design: however plans were drawn by McGhee alone. The firm of Fraser and McGhee was intact long enough to complete this building, in addition to building the west wing of Austin High School.

The design of the new Courthouse was the source of some controversy. McGhee visualized a full-bore Neoclassical with Pillars, wanting the building to emulate the spectacular Post Office: but Henry Morganthan Jr., the Secretary of the Treasury, decided that "The era of imposing Federal Buildings is at an end!" Nevertheless, McGhee drew up what he described as a "Modern Classic" exterior, saying it would be "a monumental structure but not imposing" -- and the relatively plain yet stunning design from McGhee was accepted.

The building was occupied early 1936, although the construction wasn't wrapped up until later in the year. The contractor for the $600,000 structure was Robert E. McKee, and work began on the 10th of April, 1935. The architect describes the style as Modern Classic; the National Register of Historic Places calls it Moderne; and the U.S. General Services Administration calls it "Neo-Classical Revival composition with Art Deco influences". Most people would call it "Cube with Windows" perhaps, but the creativity of McGhee is evident in creating a simpler design, as requested by Morganthan, while still being - as McGhee described it - "Dignified".
Text and research provided to sketchclub.net by Mark Stone, citing period newspaper articles accessed at newspapers.com. Also citing the NPGallery Asset Detail, National Park Service, at https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/01000434

Architect's drawing of the building from the April 3, 1935 El Paso Times, via newspapers.com

Photograph courtesy of the USGSA at https://www.gsa.gov/real-estate/historic-preservation/explore-historic-buildings/find-a-building-search

1936 photograph courtesy of the USGSA at https://www.gsa.gov/real-estate/historic-preservation/explore-historic-buildings/find-a-building-search