That old house on the hill may well be haunted, but historical preservationists aren’t going to be chasing the ghosts off anytime soon.
Texas Tech University's College of Architecture program in El Paso is abustle with activity during the day, from students going from class to class, to visiting architects coming for meetings. The college is housed in a train station built in 1906, which is still active today. Both trains and buses stop at the station throughout the day, carrying travelers from around the country. In the evenings, the station is often used for events.
Long after night falls on the century-old building, the last train makes its stop around midnight. A hush falls over the building and even the pigeons that trapped themselves inside retire from their efforts to escape.
Everything is still – and that's when she appears.
Students say they've observed a young girl wandering the train station in the middle of the night. On the occasion when students are in the studio late, working on a project, they've heard strange noises that prompted them to investigate the depot's grand hall, and that's when they've spotted the girl.
Even the security guard says he's seen her.
While this has never been confirmed, the story of the little girl in the train station is a mystery to all those who work in the building. Some say she was left at the train station and is trying to find her way out. Others think she is a relative of the architect who designed the train station, Daniel Burnham.
We may never know exactly who she is or why people keep spotting her, but if anyone is likely to find out, it will be the college's latest hire, Mahyar Hadighi.
Hadighi was hired as assistant professor in 2019 to lead the university's new master's program in historic preservation and design – a degree exclusively offered at the El Paso campus. While Hadighi says he has yet to spot the young girl, he doesn't discourage such stories because he understands how such folklore can be the very thing that saves buildings, and even neighborhoods.
Does the topic of hauntings or ghost stories come up in your line of work as a historic preservationist?
Sometimes, it depends on the project. I will say that cultural tourism is an important part of historic preservation. Whatever we do in the discipline of preservation, we think about how that will affect tourism because that is how we make the case for many projects. We think about how to attract more people because that's how to get funding. An old empty building is not going to generate revenue just sitting there, so as we think through restoring sites, if there are stories and folklore that are of interest to the public, that is something to take into consideration.
So, you've never seen the ghost at this train station?
No, I have not, but some of our students claim they have. The story itself is a great example of what I was just saying though. We've recently been in talks with the City of El Paso about this building. The city owns the building, and every few decades it seems there is a case to do something different with the space. Obviously, this is our program's home, so we are doing everything we can to showcase the value of the building and continue restoration efforts.
It's a beautiful building. What are people wanting to do differently with it?
There have been many ideas raised over the years. It's right on the border so that alone makes it of interest to a lot of people. Because it's not used as heavily anymore as a train station, I suppose people think they could make better use of the space. There also is the issue of the building's style. It was built in the new-classical style at the turn of the century, and many people feel it should reflect the Spanish style of architecture you see on the border. In fact, in the 1950s there was an architect named Mabel Welsh who painted the tower white so that it fit in better. However, in the 1980s the tower was restored to its original state.
You've mentioned both preservation and restoration. Is there a difference?
Yes, in fact, there are four different terms we use in this discipline. We work in preservation, restoration, rehabilitation and reconstruction. While the main idea is to bring something back to life, preservation is about saving it for the future generations. This can be architecture, it can also be art, a song or even an object. Restoration is when you restore a building to its original purpose and condition. You take it right back to how it was originally intended. Rehabilitation is when you make changes, but you save certain characteristics of the space. Finally, reconstruction is when you rebuild something from the ground up. You encounter this in war-torn areas or perhaps after a natural disaster.
I'm particularly interested in rehabilitation. That's what I want to do with this train station; to keep it a viable and valuable part of the community we'll need to make changes to get more use out of the space. But it shouldn't be at the expense of some of its unique characteristics or its original design.
Do you think if you told the city there was a ghost living here, they'd be more on board?
That would be something. Perhaps, but I think we'll try to make our case a few other ways first. I am not quite sure if we're ready to do ghost tours.
So how did you get into this line of work? It's a very niche interest.
I was always interested in buildings growing up. I loved playing with Legos, and I had an older brother who was an architect, so it's just always been what I wanted to do. I grew up in Iran, so I studied architecture at Azad University in Tehran. After graduating, I was working in a job where we took on the project of preserving a modern poet's house and turning it into a house museum after his passing.
I really enjoyed the experience and knew I wanted to work in historic preservation. While I could have done that with just an undergraduate, I wanted to learn more about the topic, so I looked at graduate programs. I ended up coming to the U.S. and studying at Cornell and then Penn State before taking this job with Texas Tech.
What attracted you to Texas Tech?
The university offered me a chance to build this graduate concentration from the ground up, which is an incredibly rare opportunity. I started here in 2019, and our first class started in 2020. So, it's still a very young program, but I've got amazing students from around the world. I have one student who is about to defend her thesis on the vernacular villages of the Middle East. She is focused on preserving whole communities and how we can better do that through understanding how they are started and the culture behind them.
How does culture play a part in what you do?
You know, it's interesting, it's only in the U.S. that this field is called “historic preservation.” In the rest of the world, it's referred to as “cultural preservation.” Other countries, mainly because they are much older, have so much culture and history attached to their buildings. For example, working in Iran, some areas I worked in had buildings more than 2,000 years old. So, it's rare for architects to approach that without an understanding of the culture. It's hard to divorce those two things.
For those who are thrill seekers, are there any historic sites in Texas you can recommend for haunted tours this Halloween?
Yes, there are quite a few! Almost the entire town of San Elizaro, which is just southeast of El Paso, is known for its haunted folklore. There are quite a few sites in that town, but the most famous is the jail. It is said that's the jail Billy the Kid broke into to spring his friend, Melquiades Segura.
Right here in downtown El Paso, there also is the De Soto Hotel. The 116-year-old building caught fire earlier this year and investigators had a hard time determining what caused it. The site has been home to claims of paranormal activity over the years.
Other spooky sites in Texas of interest to historians and architects alike are Yorktown Memorial Hospital in Yorktown, The Plaza Theatre Performing Arts Centre in El Paso and Hendley Row in Galveston.
For more information on Texas Tech's M.S. in Architecture, specializing in Historic Preservation and Design, visit the college's website or call (806) 742-3136.