Sunday, May 15, 2011

Behind these doors, the sunlight of our past

Volunteers have transformed the three rooms of 500 S. Oregon Street into a sunny, welcoming place to learn history
Outside banners and historic markers identify the building as a special place in the neighborhood
An altar honoring healers including Teresita Urrea
Banner honoring Teresita Urrea
Walk into the three small rooms of Museo Urbano, and you walk into a community and a history suddenly illuminated by sunshine and the hard work of volunteers.

This working class neighborhood in South El Paso is truly a bridge between Mexico and the United States, yet in earliest memory it was Apache country.  Museo's exhibits tell a rich rapidly unfolding history of this building at 500 S. Oregon Street:

1827      The site is purchased by Juan Maria Ponce de Leone, part of the area known as El Bosque along the Rio Grande
1880      Ben Dowel, first mayor of El Paso owns the land. His wife, Juana Marquez Dowel is a Tigua Indian.  Their photos are on display.
1881      An adobe U.S. Customs House is built on the property
1893      It becomes a Ladies Hospital, championed by humanitarian and philanthropist Olga Kohlberg
1895      The building becomes the Aoy Public School, also called the Mexican Preparatory School, and teaches 500 barrio children
1896-7   Santa Teresita Urrea, a healer who had inspired revolutions in Mexico and banished by President Diaz moves to the building.  Two hundred people a day come to the home to be healed; here, three assassination attempts are made on Urrea's life.
1900      The building becomes a Chinese laundry
1907      Pierre Cazanabe aka Felix Robert, a French bullfighter buys the building.  While here, he organizes bullfights and fights between bulls and buffalos at Juarez's bullring.  Now brick, the building bears his name.
1911      The building becomes home to a bicycle repair shop
1916      The building becomes a saloon
1919-20 Henry Flipper, the first African-American graduate of West Point, and Buffalo Soldier, lives in the building while working as a land surveyor for Albert Fall, then a U.S. Senator and later Secretary of the Interior and key player in the Teapot Dome scandal.

The building continues to be a residence, making it a living, breathing historic site.  Museo Urbano is clearly a labor of love for countless volunteers--including UTEP students and History Department Chair Dr. Yolanda Leyva, and author of Ringside Seat to a Revolution, David Romo.  They've added photographs of early history from the time it was a laundry, a school, a hospital.  There is a video display of more historic images.  An altar honors healers and an exhibit displays plants used for healing.

Inside there's a community scrapbook, a place individuals have added their own images and memories of this neighborhood.  Community members have also brought in altar items, healing plant materials and other artifacts for display.

Come see it yourself before June 15.  Museo Urbano is open Saturdays and Sundays, 10-2, and by appointment.  Walking tours of the neighborhood are also available by appointment.  For more information, call Dr. Yolanda Leyva, 915-747-5508. 

With additional funding...and they are seeking funds...they can keep the building open to the public past June 15.

Museo Urbano is supported in a variety of ways by many departments at University of Texas-El Paso, by the El Paso Public Library, El Paso County Historical Society, and our own Heritage Tourism Partnership Grant through the Texas Mountain Trail and the Texas Historical Commission.  However, the site slated for demolition in a standing city renewal plan. There is a desire to make the area a historic district, hopefully saving important sites like 500 S. Oregon for future generations. Here's a video from Luis Alberto Urrea, about the site.

For more information on Museo Urbano, follow their Facebook page here.

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