Guest columnist, El Paso Times, Published 6:00am MT March 24, 2023
“On Oct. 13, 2016, our City Council announced that Duranguito would be the site for a multipurpose basketball arena, that dozens of barrio residents would be displaced, and that it would use eminent domain to acquire and destroy numerous historic buildings for the project.
Within 24 hours, J. P. Bryan asked me to assemble a legal team to protect the neighborhood and uphold the rights of Romelia Mendoza, who has owned a home there for 45 years.
City takes legal action
Sensing a citizen uprising, the city took legal action on May 2, 2017 when it filed a bond validation lawsuit in Travis County, sparking nearly six years of continuous litigation in more than a half-dozen courts.
Bryan funded most of the litigation cost and never wavered in his determination to save our city’s birthplace, which includes 12 buildings eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
A lifetime of preservationist activity
While most are grateful for his efforts, some have questioned why a man from Freeport, Texas would take an interest in preserving the historic core of a city located clear across Texas.
The fact is that Bryan is one of the leading preservationists in our state. He understands, as does the National Trust for Historic Preservation, that Duranguito is the cultural patrimony not only of El Paso, but also of the United States.
The neighborhood tells the story of the Manso, Piro and Apache peoples, Spanish and Mexican colonization, the American Civil War, the arrival of the Chinese who built our railroads, the Mexican Revolution, and the transformation of El Paso from an unruly frontier town into a modern metropolis.
Passion for Texas history
Because of his passion for Texas history, Bryan has dedicated much of his fortune to restoring buildings and amassing the largest collection of Texas artifacts in the world. He has served on the most prestigious historical boards in our state and was the first President of the Texas Historical Foundation.
In recent years he established the Bryan Museum in Galveston in an 1894 orphanage he restored to exhibit his vast collection of art, books and relics. He currently serves on the boards of the Texas State Historical Association, Friends of the Alamo, and the Lone Star Coastal Alliance.
Investments in our region
While his cultural interests span the state, Bryan has been especially committed to the West Texas region. In 1978, he purchased the Trost-designed Gage Hotel in Marathon for $30,000 and developed it into one of the finest hotels in the state. Today it produces more than $10 million in annual revenue and employs about 100 people. He restored another 26 buildings there and founded several other businesses, transforming a dying town into a regional economic engine.
He also purchased and rehabilitated two large ranches near Big Bend and won an award for restoring more than 30,000 acres of grassland.
Purchases historic building
In El Paso, Bryan served on the boards of the Tom Lea Institute, gifting them approximately $200,000, and The Trost Society, contributing $150,000. He just pledged $150,000 to establish a regional office of Preservation Texas in El Paso.
Bryan recently purchased a 75% stake in a historic building at 301-303 S. Oregon Street that he and the co-owner Joe Nebhan will restore.
Once a National Register Historic District is created in our downtown, making tax credits available for historic preservation, Bryan plans to acquire a building in Duranguito and establish a Brick Vault Brewery & Barbecue restaurant there. He also intends to gather additional investors to assist with the restoration of the neighborhood.
I have been honored to collaborate with J. P. Bryan and El Pasoans are fortunate that he is so committed to our community.”
Max Grossman holds a doctorate in architectural history from Columbia University.