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Ornate entry arch was one of the earliest mid-1970s constructions at The Sugar House.
Ornate entry arch was one of the earliest mid-1970s constructions at The Sugar House.

The Sugar House: Folk Art Confection

Field review by the editors.

El Paso, Texas

The motives of yard artists are too often lost in a crabgrass of unknowns -- how do you explain something like this or this? -- but the intent behind The Sugar House is well-documented. Rufino Loya frequently told visitors that even though he couldn't afford a fancy house, he wanted to turn the one that he had into a place that his wife, Celia, could be proud of.

Virgin of Guadalupe shrine faces the adjacent freeway.
Virgin of Guadalupe shrine faces the adjacent freeway.

Rufino worked in an El Paso pants factory and had no training in art, architecture, or construction. He knew, however, what he and Celia liked, and what they liked was the decorative Spanish stonework found in colonial Mexican Catholic churches and shrines.

Stone and carving tools were beyond Rufino's budget, but he had low-cost alternatives: plaster and cement. Beginning in 1973 and continuing for the next 25 years, Rufino fashioned molds from cups, bowls, and other kitchen containers (Celia may not have been consulted about this) and cast decorative patterns -- beads, leaves, petaled flowers -- over and over. He attached some of these repetitive pieces to the house exterior, but the majority were mortared into pillars, archways, flowerpots, and walls in the yard. Most were painted white with blue and adobe accents, creating a bright oasis in Rufino and Celia's dun-hued desert suburb. Painted concrete also covered the driveway, sidewalks, and an extended patio that spilled out to the streets surrounding the property.

Sacred Heart of Jesus shrine rises behind The Sugar House encircling wall.
Sacred Heart of Jesus shrine rises behind The Sugar House encircling wall.

Angel can barely carry its offering of concrete flowers.
Angel can barely carry its offering of concrete flowers.

Neighbors noticed. They called Rufino and Celia's home La Casa de Azucar, The Sugar House, because the colorful, giddy ornamentation reminded them of sugar frosting on a cake. It was a part-time project that lasted for decades, an hour here and there when Rufino wasn't at work stitching pants, and an impressive labor of dogged dedication.

Rufino's Roman Catholicism is front-and-center at The Sugar House. He built elaborate, monumental shrines, most of them open to the public outside the property's encircling wall, venerating the Resurrection, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Saint Francis of Assisi, and others. Many of the shrines feature statues, including a platoon of cherubic angels. Rufino painted the skin of many of them in oversaturated, purplish hues, as if the divine essence had stayed out in the sun too long.

Rufino was surprised and happy that people came to visit his work, including politicians, scholars, and engineers, but he was most happy that it pleased Celia. One of the inspirational plaques on the property features Rufino and Celia's handprints with the inscription, "Blessed God and these humble hands made this work of art possible." Others enjoin, "Keep El Paso Beautiful" and "El Paso Strong Forever." Rufino would tell reporters that while his method of creating decorative art was his own, he wanted everyone to know that it came from El Paso.

The Sugar House and its dedication plaque out by Leavell Avenue.
The Sugar House and its dedication plaque out by Leavell Avenue.

A vase of concrete flowers memorializing the victims of 9/11 was Rufino's last major addition to The Sugar House. After nearly 30 years he either ran out of inspiration or out of room.

Keeping The Sugar House looking well-frosted required constant work, which Rufino dutifully performed well into his eighties. If he was cleaning, patching, or painting when tourists arrived, he would stop and explain his mixing and molding techniques. A tip jar carried this message: "Attention. The maintenance is too high cost so please if you take pictures put here your cooperation. Thanks." But the jar was set into the base of the Sacred Heart shrine, barely visible and completely inaccessible if the front gate was closed. Maybe Rufino didn't want to seem too pushy.

Rufino Loya died, age 88, in August 2022. We'd visited The Sugar House only a month prior, and saw that the paint was already fading on parts of the concrete, and that an angel had been decapitated at The Prayer of Colors shrine. Rufino had hoped that his son would continue maintaining The Sugar House, but whether or not that will happen, or if El Paso will step in and help, isn't currently clear.

Maybe fellow yard artists can pitch in a few hours of upkeep a week at The Sugar House. They could certainly identify with a man who saw an empty yard as something that had to be filled.

The Sugar House: Folk Art Confection

Address:
4301 Leavell Ave., El Paso, TX
Directions:
North edge of the city. US-54/Patriot Fwy exit 25. Head south on the southbound frontage road (Gateway S. Blvd). When you pass the storage lot for Army vehicles on the right, you'll soon see the house on the right. Turn right at Leavell Ave.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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