EL PASO — Dale Chihuly art. Marsden Hartley exhibits. Gourmet cuisine in an art deco restaurant, live jazz and Tommy Lee Jones, Mick Jagger, Oscar de la Hoya, Shakira or Aerosmith dropping in while you dine. A historic theater offering Broadway shows or "Riverdance." A historic hotel from which the Mexican Revolution was observed off a terrace. High-octane football vying for national attention at the Sun Bowl. The charm of a bicultural border town and arid sunny days in the middle of January and February.
All this is to be found in El Paso, once known as the Pass of the North.
"El Paso's definitely changing for the better; it's very exciting," says Jeff Romney, director of development at El Paso Museum of Art. "There's a new spirit in town and in Ciudad Juárez, our sister city. We are joint-venturing with Juárez on many arts projects, as well as gearing up for the Mexican bicentennial."
Romney shares the new community-oriented perspective on the museum, now located in the heart of downtown. "In the past, the museum was viewed more as a private institution; the last year and a half, the perception is that this is the people's museum."
If you're lucky enough to visit on the third Thursday of the month, be sure to attend Third Thursday, an after-work social mixer open to the public. One might run into nearly a thousand arts supporters any given Thursday and catch exhibits such as "The Creative World of Peter Max," featuring "one of America's premiere artists who continues to be popular; specifically popular in the Woodstock era."
Michael Tomar, the museum's art director, is traveling to Spain this month in a continuing effort to develop shared programs.
The museum plans to open a café this year on the plaza between the museum and the historic Plaza Theatre next door.
"The café will flaunt an outdoor veranda overlooking the theater, just feet away from the entrance to the theater's new cocktail lounge," Romney said.
El Paso is fortunate, explained Tomar, in that its downtown remained untouched as the city developed, leaving its cultural and architectural heritage intact.
"Now, our downtown is being seen as a new central; it's a key link, reconnecting downtown El Paso to downtown Juárez," Tomar said. "The museum of art was the standard-bearer of the cultural revitalization of our downtown."
Moving the museum to the heart of El Paso's nexus in 1998 started a trend. Now INSIGHTS, the science museum, is moving downtown. The Holocaust museum will also be opening its doors late this month or early in February within four blocks of the art museum. And the history museum, a 48,000-square-foot, $6.6 million project, just relocated from the east side and is now next door to the El Paso Public Library in Cleveland Square. The library recently completed a multimillion-dollar expansion; all of this activity is about the revitalization of downtown El Paso, but specifically about cultural revitalization.
Together with Juárez, the city is gearing up for the centennial of the Mexican Revolution in 2010; the bicentennial of Mexico's separation from Spain, and the famous "Grito," the cry for independence, is also in 2010. The Museum of Art's 50th anniversary coincides with that anniversary.
"The city of El Paso is creating a more vibrant environment," said Rene Baz, spokesperson for the Camino Real Hotel — the one with a terrace overlooking the Rio Grande, where spectators are said to have stood and observed events of the Mexican Revolution. Baz is excited about upgrading the 359 rooms, floor by floor.
The 17th floor houses the luxury suites, ranging from $450 a night for the Governor's Suite to $1,000 a night for the Presidential Suite. The hotel's list of most notable patrons reads like a Who's Who: Steven Tyler from Aerosmith, Ricky Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, President Bush and Elizabeth Taylor — even John Wayne, back in his day.
From the corner rooms on the 14th and 15th floors, you can see much of downtown, the Franklin Mountains, the Museum of Art and the Plaza Theatre on one side and the sombrero-shaped Civic Center and Abraham Chavez Theater on the other. These are the rooms I call "glass houses," having often imagined living there. W. Park Kerr, founder of El Paso Chile Company, beat me to it. He leases 2,000 square feet on the 16th floor "because what adult doesn't have a fantasy of living in a hotel? I fly by the motto 'Don't dream it, be it.'"
For comfort's sake, until these "glass houses" have independent climate control systems installed, I would advise guests stay in the already-renovated rooms with updated controls. As is so often the case, the charm often includes old heating systems that need to be manually geared for cold or hot air (yes, with a maintenance man and step ladder). If you don't mind waiting for one to show up, "the glass-house rooms" are the way to go. View is everything, particularly the desert sunset.
The hotel's Dome Bar was named one of GQ's "12 best bars worth flying to" in 2006. Zacharias T. White, the original owner, wanted to build a luxury hotel in El Paso, according to Baz. "He knew El Paso was going to be booming because of the railroads. He hired architects Trost and Trost, but there was no specific design yet in mind. While traveling to New York, White stepped into Tiffany's, saw and bought the dome, came back and said to Trost and Trost, 'Build me a hotel around this.' In 1912, the hotel officially opened."
In the art shop in the lobby, you will find, among a mixture of fine-art pieces, original Picassos, available for purchase.
Catch a show at the grand old Plaza Theatre, built in 1930; there's "Gypsy," for example, coming on Jan. 30, or Tom Jones on Feb. 12.
A partnership between the El Paso Community Foundation and the city brought the Plaza back to life. "The theater had a life of its own; it just wouldn't die," said Paul Dipp of Plaza Properties. "There were many people who loved the building that wanted to see it thrive, and that's why it exists today. It's the heart within the heart of the city."
There have been many accounts of ghosts, particularly the backstage ghost. "There are many other people who attest to it, the people who fell down a certain stairwell — there are many other rumors, but I've never seen it," Dipp said.
Dinner or lunch must be had at Café Central, owned by Victor Trae Apodaca III. "We're good old hard-working boys," he says. Chef Armando Pomales, for example, started as an intern from the high school culinary program; he's worked his way up from line cook.
Deborah Frescas of the café staff energetically lists the celebrities who make their way into the café: Beck, Mana, The Cranberries, Lisa Loeb, Gene Hackman, Jeremy Irons, George Lopez, Cheech Marin, Josh Lucas ("he was here all the time during the 'Glory Road' days; he'd sit by the window, very low-key, very humble"), and Hall of Fame basketball coach Don Haskins.
Apodaca, who has had a front-row seat to the whole downtown revival over the 16 years he's operated a restaurant here, is delighted with the trend. "People have stepped up to put their money where their mouth is. We're getting businesspeople back downtown. I see more tourists and out-of-town businesspeople due to the interest in El Paso by the business sector from all over the country. They constantly tell me, about the café, 'I can't believe there's a place like this in El Paso. This is as good as places up in San Fransisco, Los Angeles or New York.'"
Apodaca also confirms, "Down here, it's the arts triangle. We've got a world-class museum, a world-class theater, a great hotel, and they're all in walking distance of us."
Not bad for a weekend worth of things to do — and don't forget the second annual Texas vs. the Nation All-Star Bowl on Feb. 2. Viva El Paso! Go Texas!