Stepping inside the lobby of the Gardner Hotel and El Paso International Hostel, guests are transported from busy Downtown streets to a place that is reminiscent of another era. Its marble staircase leads to rooms that have seen countless guests.
The hotel was opened in 1922 by Preston E. Gardner, a lawyer who in 1923 ran for mayor of El Paso and lost to Richard M. Dudley, after whom Dudley Field is named. The Gardner Hotel was originally intended to be a five-story 100-room hotel, but when construction costs went $50,000 over budget and only three floors had been completed, Gardner stopped building. Because of fears of fire in the 1920s, the Gardner was constructed entirely of steel making the hotel almost completely fire proof.
Gardner Hotel has a lot of history but most notably, on Jan. 9, 1934, bank robber John Dillinger and two members of his gang checked into the Gardner Hotel. Dillinger signed the name John D. Ball on the registry and stayed in room 221. But because Dillinger didn’t break any laws during his stay, the El Paso Sharif’s Department did not arrest him. Dillinger checked out a few days later but was captured Jan. 25, 1934, in Tucson after being recognized by firefighters who had saved his heavy luggage from a burning hotel there.
Gardner sold the hotel to William McMurray in the 1930s. But as Mr. McMurray got older, the El Paso hotel was sold to Joseph George Nebhan. After Joseph Nebhan gave the hotel to his son, John Nebhan, all but six guests were thrown out and all but a maid, a janitor and a clerk were fired and it was run as a retirement hotel from 1962-1983.
The current owner, Joe Nebhan (son of John Nebhan), began working odd jobs around the hotel when he was 8. He took over management of the hotel in 1981 and soon realized that the Gardner could not continue operating as a retirement hotel and so he began to operate the El Paso hotel as an El Paso hostel and hotel on Feb. 9, 1984.
Hostels offer dormitory-style rooms at reasonable prices and are primarily used by young and international travelers.
To this day Gardner still operates as a hotel in half of its rooms. The other half operates as El Paso International Hostel, with up to four bunk beds per room and a shared bath in which Men stay on the second floor and women on the third. The Gardner is the only hostel in El Paso and one of about 10 hostels in Texas. It was rated in 1996 by American Youth Hostels as the best in the country.
In the early 1990s, Nebhan made a striking discovery. As he was cleaning the opalescent glass in front he noticed a glint of copper. After a thorough cleaning, a copper trimming was revealed. Nebhan decided to take things further and found that oak was hiding beneath eight layers of paint at the building’s entrance. This inspired Nebhan to redo the hotel and bring it back to its roots… The front desk was replaced by a style that would have been used in the 1920s. The skylights were uncovered and the blocked windows were replaced with stained glass and a telephone switchboard from the 1930s is now on display in the hotel’s lobby. He tried to restore the hotel to its original appearance as much as possible.
The oldest public phone in the area sits against the wall along with 1920s-era artwork that adorns the wall. The hotel’s original elevator with a collapsible door still runs guests to the upper floors and much of the original hotel is still intact today.
To those zooming past the hotel at 311 E. Franklin as they enter Interstate 10, the Gardner Hotel of El Paso is much more than just another old building that lines the road. It’s history.