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Hilles and Garland: Modern Architecture for the Borderland

Published: Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Updated: Friday, May 17, 2013 13:05


Larry Speck, presented his architecture projects and spoke about architecture in the borderland Sept. 19 at the Rubin Center.

Nestled in the dry, arid heat of El Paso stands a home reminiscent of 70s architecture with long, clean lines and floor to ceiling windows. It is designed to fit perfectly into the desert landscape surrounding it, taking into consideration its vegetation and the majestic Franklin Mountains that engulf it.

It is the home of Dr. Leonard Morton, and is one of the many projects that the talented duo of architects David Hilles and Robert Garland designed specifically for the El Paso area.

Models of their homes are currently on display in an exhibition entitled "Modernism for the Borderland: The Mid-Century Houses of Robert Garland and David Hilles" at The Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts through Oct. 11. The exhibition was the brainchild of William Palmore, who is currently assistant professor and Chair of Architecture at the New York Institute of Technology.

"They (Hilles and Garland) were really talented, and they needed to be more avidly recognized," Palmore said.

Palmore explained that from about 1952 to 1962, Hilles and Garland would design about two homes a year, located all over the city. What distinguished the homes designed by Hilles and Garland are several things. For instance, they took into account El Paso's weather and terrain in the design of their homes, including the large amount of sunlight that the city receives and the dry heat.

"Hilles and Garland were very attentive to the site so that their designs were appropriate for the site. They designed their homes so that the harsh sun wouldn't impact the interior," said Kate Bonansinga, director of The Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts.

What is intriguing about Hilles and Garland homes is that they are not only custom made for El Paso's desert landscape, but for the homeowners as well. After World War II, there was an influx of people moving to the El Paso area, in particular, professionals such as doctors. The problem was that with so many people moving into the area, more housing was needed, and for those who could afford it, Hilles and Garland could provide it.

"People after World War II looked at this kind of architecture as exciting, modern, and problem-solving," Palmore said. "These houses were not locked into tradition. The homes provided were very flowing spaces, relaxed and casual."

The Rubin Center held a lecture Sept. 19th to share Hilles and Garland's impact on the El Paso area with the community. Those who were present included William Palmore, Kate Bonansinga, some of Hilles and Garland's children to include Mark Hilles and Robert Garland, Jr., and both UTEP and EPCC students. Also present was Larry Speck, an architect from Austin, Texas, who shared his thoughts on Hilles and Garland and their designs.

"Their designs allow you to see this place (El Paso) in a more intense way. These designs are all about the client so that the buildings become an organic and integral part of the community. The houses are connected to the climate because Hilles and Garland understood the landscape," Speck said.

The models of the Hilles and Garland homes on display at the Rubin Center are pieces of art themselves. They were made by William Palmore's architecture students in New York. They are based on the original drawings of the homes so that the models are exactly the way the homes appear in the working drawings. The models were first computer generated and then cut by a laser cutter. Palmore then hand painted all the pieces and the models were later assembled.

"After checking out the models that I helped set up for the exhibit, I became interested to see what the real houses looked like because seeing the models at the Rubin Center doesn't really satisfy the architecture. You don't get the feel of the decade that they were built in," said Art De Santiago, a junior psychology major and Rubin Center employee.

An interesting fact about Hilles and Garland that many El Pasoans do not know about is just how many projects these two architects helped design.

Palmore said the Hilles and Garland worked on the Sun Bowl Stadium, the Valle Verde Campus of El Paso Community College, Thomason Hospital, the Main Branch of the El Paso Public Library, the El Paso Natural Gas building and the re-modeling of the El Paso International Airport. In fact, Hilles and Garland started their own architecture firm that still exists today here in El Paso.

For more information on the exhibition and the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts, call 747-6151.

For more information on the Garland, Keirsey, and Swier architectural firm, call 915-533-3937.

Kandice N. Diaz may be reached at

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