Asarco’s Power House will not be spared demolition

By Chris Roberts \ EL PASO TIMES

The ASARCO plant power house was bult in 1901. Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times

A red-brick Asarco building constructed in 1908 to house machinery that made the former smelter run apparently will not survive the march of time.

The Power House was intended to be one of the few structures that would remain on the West Side site. But the old building needs expensive rehabilitation to make it safe for human habitation, according to a recent study conducted by the trustee in charge of cleaning up the site and selling the land.

“It’s the history of everything industrial in America,” said Jackson Polk, an El Paso filmmaker and historian who was given access to the site and has been making videos as the smelter is dismantled.

Roberto Puga, the man in charge of cleaning up the polluted smelter site and selling it, had planned to save the Power House and the administration building.

“We commissioned a report” on the Power House, Puga said. “We wanted to see what kind of structural work will be required.”

The report indicated the building will need about $3 million in repairs.

“There is structural damage to the facade and possibly to load-bearing members,” Puga said. “That has to be taken into account for whoever wants to own it.”

In a Friday telephone interview, Puga said no decision has been made on the structure’s fate. However, because of cleanup demands, he will have to decide within about a six-month period, Puga said.

Robert Ardovino who fought to close the plant down also helped found “Save the Stacks,” a group that has been dedicated to preserving the 826-foot chimney with the Asarco lettering.

Save the Stacks was dealt a setback last week when the El Paso City Council rejected a resolution authored by the group that would have set the stage for the city to buy the smokestack and a small piece of surrounding land. City representatives voting against it said they did not want to spend taxpayer money on the project.

If no plan is in place by Tuesday, demolition of the stacks will proceed, Puga has said. Save the Stacks members have accused Puga of being interested only in razing the site.

“They’re going to tear the Power House down and they could be selling those 100-year-old motors for scrap,” Ardovino said. “He should board it up and preserve it like he said he was going to do. Let someone else rehabilitate them.”

Boards now cover the Power House’s windows, Puga said. “We’ve preserved it very nicely,” he said.

But — similar to conditions Puga set on the chimney purchase — anyone who buys the Power House will have to demonstrate the ability to do the needed repairs. Without that, Puga said, the trust remains liable for property damage and personal injury.

If no one steps forward, the building will come down, he said. Otherwise, “it could become an orphan,” Puga said.

The El Paso County Historical Society does not have fundraising plans for it, said Sara Belger, the society’s executive director. She added that Puga has been cooperative about saving as much of the history as possible.

“Puga really does care about the history of the area,” Belger said.

Part of the attraction of the Power House is the equipment inside. That includes a massive steam-driven generator built in New York state in 1908, electrical equipment with 1899 patent stamps and a boiler salvaged from a World War II fighting ship.

Puga has committed to transporting the machinery –weighing tons — one time, if someone can find a home for it. He estimates the cost will be in the six-figure range.

If a home cannot be found, the material will be sold for scrap, he said.

“I would think somebody would want that stuff,” Puga said. “And I haven’t given up on getting the Smithsonian Institution interested.”

The other building that was slated for preservation will survive, Puga said. The Administration Building was one of the original structures built when the smelter was founded in 1887. It is made of adobe and contains some asbestos, Puga said.

“It’s not big bucks to save it because it’s a small building,” Puga said.

All the paper records from the smelter, many of them stored in the administration building, were donated to the University of Texas at El Paso archives.

Puga said he wants to preserve as much of the history and culture on the site as he can, but that is not his primary job. And the $52 million from the Asarco bankruptcy settlement as well as any money he raises from the sale of material and equipment — with few exceptions — must go to the cleanup, he said.

“I have to clean the site,” Puga said. “Nothing can get in the way of that.”

Chris Roberts may be reached at; 546-6136.

Power House Tours

The El Paso County Historical Society is having tours of Asarco’s Power House.

Twice-a-day tours are scheduled for 9 and 10:30 a.m. Saturday and Dec. 15.

Tours last about an hour and include a look at the 826-foot Asarco chimney and the administration building.

The society asks for a $25 dollar donation.

Hard hats will be provided. People should wear closed-toe shoes and clothing that covers and protects the body.

Call 533-3603 for more information, or make a reservation