Centennial Plaza, Lhakhang Celebrate Grand Opening

Originally published April 24, 2015

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

After nearly two years of construction detours, the chain-link fences surrounding the center of the UTEP campus finally came down on Saturday, April 18, unveiling the crown jewel of The University of Texas at El Paso’s campus transformation projects – the Centennial Plaza and lhakhang cultural exhibit.

More than 1,000 UTEP students, faculty, staff and friends of the University meandered through the 11-acre site that incorporates rock-strewn arroyos, drought-resistant vegetation, rock structures and a natural amphitheater during the plaza’s grand opening, which also marked the end of UTEP’s Centennial Celebration.

More than 1,000 UTEP students, faculty, staff and friends of the University meandered celebrated the grand opening of the Centennial Plaza and Lhakhang cultural center on April 18. Photo by Ivan Aguirre / UTEP News Service
More than 1,000 UTEP students, faculty, staff and friends of the University meandered celebrated the grand opening of the Centennial Plaza and lhakhang cultural exhibit on April 18. Photo by Ivan Aguirre / UTEP News Service

“Centennial Plaza is and will be a site that represents a huge gift to all of us on the campus now, and all those who will follow in our footsteps over the next century,” UTEP President Diana Natalicio said during her remarks. “This beautiful space serves as a reminder of our many achievements in fulfilling the commitment we’ve made to offer all residents of this Paso del Norte region both access and excellence in higher education, as well as to serve as a catalyst for regional prosperity and quality of life, and a national model for public research universities in large metropolitan areas across this nation in the 21st century.”

The plaza was created by reinventing the natural arroyo terrain that once defined the center of campus before it was replaced with roads and parking lots to accommodate automobile traffic.

The new pedestrian-friendly plaza, with its wide circular paseo and an expansive patch of grass, makes it possible for members of the UTEP community to relax, socialize or study with friends in the heart of campus.

“The great thing about the new Centennial Plaza is that I think it really invites students to spend a lot more time on campus because now we have this nice area to study, to hang out and to enjoy,” said Mathew Macias, a junior biology major and UTEP orientation leader.

Macias took a group of incoming Miners on a tour of campus Saturday, including Jesus Garcia, a transfer student from El Paso Community College who will start at the University this summer.

Garcia briefly attended the University of Arizona before returning to El Paso and pursuing his undergraduate degree in multidisciplinary studies at UTEP.

“That’s a huge university, but I get the same feel of a big-time university here,” Garcia said, as he looked across Centennial Plaza. “This is a big deal. This feels good.”

Among the distinguished guests at the grand opening was the Honorable Kunzang C. Namgyel, the Bhutanese ambassador to the United Nations, who was on campus to dedicate the lhakhang cultural exhibit. The intricately hand-carved, hand-painted lhakhang was a gift from the people of Bhutan to the people of the United States and entrusted to the care of UTEP at the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. It is the only structure of its kind outside the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Ambassador Namgyel said the lhakhang represented the close ties of friendship between UTEP and Bhutan.

“The inclusion of the lhakhang for us Bhutanese is a breathtaking experience having Bhutan within the campus of UTEP,” she said. “I know we have a growing student body. I know for them (this is like) being home.”

UTEP’s distinct Bhutanese-style architecture was inspired by Kathleen Worrell, wife of Steve Worrell, the first dean of the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy (now UTEP), after she saw pictures of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan in National Geographic magazine.

“In terms of our cooperation with UTEP, I think (it is) visible in the physical structure,” Namgyel added. “We can see the impressive expansion in the beauty of UTEP with the Bhutanese architecture as a centerpiece and we are pleased this is happening here.”

More than 2,000 people toured the lhakhang Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which features intricately crafted ceilings, pillars and tapestries that tell the story of the Buddha and the arrival of Buddhism to Bhutan. The left side of the structure tells the story of how Guru Rinpoche introduced Buddhism to Bhutan. The right side of the structure describes the life and death of the Buddha.

“The lhakhang is a true symbol of friendship and trust between two countries, and more importantly, between Bhutan and UTEP, honoring a partnership that dates back nearly 100 years,” President Natalicio said.

Ricardo Lomeli snapped pictures of his wife, Rosemary Ortega, a UTEP graduate, and their son Abel Jaquez, a senior at Eastwood High School who will start at UTEP this fall semester.

“I was here last summer (during the construction) and it was pretty bad,” said Jaquez, who plans to study physics. “But it’s crazy to see how (the center of campus) got so beautiful so fast. I loved this school before and now this is one more reason to love it even more. I’m glad that I’m coming here.”

During her remarks, President Natalicio also acknowledged several partners, including the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT); The University of Texas System Board of Regents; former UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa; Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Pedro Reyes; Ten Eyck Landscape Architects; Lake/Flato Architects and C.F. Jordan Construction, whose support turned UTEP’s vision of a pedestrian-friendly campus into reality.

President Natalicio mentioned that TxDOT’s commitment enabled UTEP to secure a match in Permanent University Fund bond proceeds from The University of Texas System. Those two sources of funding, together with philanthropic gifts, allowed UTEP to complete the Centennial Plaza.

“TxDOT’s investment in this campus core, and in improvements in transportation infrastructure surrounding the campus, were critical to turning our vision into reality,” President Natalicio said.

Ted Houghton, former chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, congratulated President Natalicio on a job well done and told attendees to expect more great things to come from UTEP.

“I do not believe that this is the crescendo,” Houghton said. “There’s something yet to come. I think I know what it is and it starts with a ‘T’ and ends with a ‘One’ that means Tier One. Nothing is impossible, and all you have to do is look around you.”

Tours of the lhakhang cultural exhibit are by appointment only. Contact the Centennial Museum for more information.