Surprising echoes of Bhutan in Texas
The style of buildings in the Himalayan kingdom was transported to El Paso.
El Paso, Texas
They're a curiosity on an American campus – the Asian-style buildings with sloping walls, wide red friezes, and overhanging roofs at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). They seem almost to lean against the Franklin Mountain foothills.Skip to next paragraph
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Anyone seeing them for the first time could be forgiven for seeming puzzled: How did they get there? And why?
The central character in the story that provides the answers is Kathleen Worrell, an academic's wife who liked reading and traveling and writing about her travels.
On Oct. 29, 1916, when the dean was away on a business trip, a fire broke out in the college's administration building.
By the time it was extinguished, virtually nothing was left of the structure. The school's chemistry lab, mineral collections, and records had all been destroyed.
Although two other buildings were left, the heart of the school was gone and, clearly, had to be replaced.
A rebuilding project
Within two months, a 23-acre rocky site nine miles away in El Paso had been donated. But what was the new school to look like?
Mrs. Worrell had an idea. Three years earlier, leafing through the April 1914 issue of National Geographic magazine, she had been entranced by pictures of the little Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan.
The article, called "Castles in the Air" and its accompanying 74 photos, were by an Englishman, John Claude White, who had been assigned by his country as a political officer in the region.
The landscape he had captured on film looked very much like the rocky El Paso foothills that had just been donated for rebuilding the school, and the mountain "fortress-castles" that the Bhutanese called dzongs had thick, sloping walls and projecting roofs that took advantage of their rocky setting. They were set high and fortified as protection from invasion by enemies.