Asarco’s oldest building could be saved

By Robert Gray | El Paso Inc.

Melody Parra

Although the movement to preserve the massive smokestacks on the former Asarco property ends with two carefully choreographed demolitions scheduled for next weekend, the future of two historic buildings on the site remains undecided.

After explosives topple the large 828-foot stack like a tree at around 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 13, still standing not more than 200 feet away from the rubble – if all goes according to plan – will be the historic administration building, built of adobe in 1880.

“We’re working closely with the El Paso County Historical Commission and I am hopeful … the administration building can be preserved,” said site trustee Robert Puga, who has overseen the cleanup of the polluted land and the selling of everything valuable on the property.

As trustee, Puga has earned $19 million selling off equipment and metals left on the 410-acre site. That’s over and above the $52 million originally anticipated. Puga says those dollars will allow him to clean the property to a higher standard.

Whereas Puga was unwilling to give the tallest smokestack to the city in December, he said he is willing to give the administration building to the El Paso County Historical Commission, or a similar entity, if it can demonstrate it has the resources to maintain the 130-year-old adobe structure.

“The one thing I don’t want is to give them the building and they find they can’t take care of it and it becomes an orphan,” Puga said.

In December, when the city proposed accepting liability for the smokestack and paying for its maintenance in an effort to preserve the stack as a monument, Puga insisted it would have to purchase the entire 143-acre site east of Interstate 10 for $10 million to do so.

Puga told City Council at the time that the stacks were a massive liability and threatened the eventual sale of the property.

“If the city came in and just wanted to own the stacks, I would be failing in my fiduciary duty as a trustee to maximize the potential return of that property,” Puga said.

The administration building, now being used by the trust as its headquarters, is a completely different matter, Puga said.

“The big difference is the stack is a huge liability for anybody, and you can’t take those liabilities lightly,” Puga said. “Even a smaller-scale thing like the administration building is still a major undertaking for a group.”

The effort to raise money to save the historic building will begin in earnest even before the dust settles from the demolition of the stacks, said Bernie Sargent, chairman of the El Paso County Historical Commission.

He estimates it would cost between $750,000 and $1 million to restore the building. It could be used as a headquarters for historic preservation groups in El Paso, Sargent said, and as a repository for collectibles relating to the heritage and culture of Far West Texas.

Sargent said he hopes the same people who “came out of the woodwork” to try to save the stacks will be equally committed to saving the administration building.

The administration building is one of only two buildings the Asarco trustee has left standing on the former smelter property. The other is the powerhouse, which was built in 1908.

When the demolition of the site began, the intention was for the powerhouse to be preserved, but it has proven too expensive, Sargent said.

“Structurally, it is in dismal condition,” he said.

A study commissioned by the trustee indicated it would cost $3 million to repair the building.

However, Sargent said the historical commission is working to preserve some of the old and “cool equipment” inside. There are generators, electrical connections and large switches reminiscent of a Frankenstein movie.

“You expect Mel Brooks to come out of the corner somewhere,” Bernie said.

Right after World War II, Asarco acquired generators from some of the ships used to transport goods for the war effort and built the powerhouse so the smelter could generate its own power, according to Sargent. At the time, it was a way to manage expenses as energy prices rose.

“We’ve tried hard to save what we could,” Puga said.

He added, “It is important to recognize the historical significance of the Asarco smelter.”

This Thursday, Puga said, he will hold a press conference on the site to demonstrate the measures taken to contain pollutants when the stacks come crashing down. They include earthen berms, cushioning layers of soil in the fall zones and misting systems.

For more information about the demolition, go online to