Main Avenue, Then and Now

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This is the view of the 1800 block of Main Avenue, looking south. A dusty front window peered into Vanity Cleaners. Gatsby’s Sandwich Shoppe had an upper level built from recycled wood. A Mod Clothing store was next door. The Aladdin Poodle Parlor served the peacocky pooches of Monte Vista. Ball-It was a pinball arcade. It was so popular that the Rock Garden Nightclub next door became Eat-It, a bar & grill. An Exxon sign hangs above an old gas station. Through the peeling and faded paint, one could discern a previous occupant, Hudson Cars. Gas-guzzling muscle cars (Mercury, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile) cruise the street. Photo by Don Mathis.

This is the view of the 1800 block of Main Avenue, looking south in the '70s. A dusty front window peered into Vanity Cleaners. Gatsby’s Sandwich Shoppe had an upper level built from recycled wood. A Mod Clothing store was next door. The Aladdin Poodle Parlor served the peacocky pooches of Monte Vista. Ball-It was a pinball arcade. It was so popular that the Rock Garden Nightclub next door became Eat-It, a bar & grill. An Exxon sign hangs above an old gas station. Through the peeling and faded paint, one could discern a previous occupant, Hudson Cars. Gas-guzzling muscle cars (Mercury, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile) cruise the street. Photo by Don Mathis.

New York had its Greenwich Village in the 1950s, San Francisco had its Haight-Ashbury district in the 1960s, but in the 1970s, San Antonio had North Main Avenue.

In 1975, the area around San Antonio College (SAC) was the place to be. Thousands of veterans enrolled at SAC to take advantage of the GI Bill. I found an apartment above the office of a private eye {2001} at the corner of Courtland and Main.

Dozens of assorted shops served the citizens of a colorful neighborhood. Every residence and every business was unique and one-of-a-kind. There were no cookie-cutter homes or megastores here.

SAC had a policy then to buy up surrounding properties as they became available, turn them into parking lots, and leave it vacant until they needed to add more buildings. Jerome F. Weynand, SAC President at the time, said it would be too expensive to build multi-level parking garages – and even more expensive to tear them down when classrooms were needed.

SAC doesn’t think that any more. The campus has built several multi-story parking lots in the intervening years. The college has almost doubled in size in the last four decades.

My neighbor and I used to joke that our apartment would one day become a parking lot. We don’t make that joke any more. Our old abode is now the site of the parking lot by SAC Radio KSYM {2001}. Fredstock, a neighborhood music festival, takes place here each spring.  Donnie Meals, Music Business Program Coordinator at SAC, said Fredstock 2015 is scheduled for May 2nd, 12 – 6 p.m., and the public is invited.

Buddy’s Ize Box {1920} occupied an old gas station. It was torn down and the Law Office of LaHood & Butler was eventually constructed. Another old gas station housed the Santana Tap Room {1901}. It was right on the corner of Travis Elementary School by the bus stop.

I guess the chain link fence surrounding the campus then required a 500 yard walk-around so the bar could remain in code compliance. The old elementary school has metamorphosed into Travis Early College High School {1915}.  It helps young students save the cost – and time – of their first two years of college.

(Read more: Travis Early College High School: A Golden Opportunity for Students.)

Yet another old gas station {1727} housed the SAC motor pool in the late 1970s. Through the faded paint, one could discern the words, “Hudson Cars.” Now it’s a parking lot.

A bearded fellow named Ted cooked the best chili and eggs in a small cafe on Locust Street near Main. Luther’s Cafe only had about six seats at its counter but their Irish stew with a red top of chili was larruping.  In 1977, Luther’s Cafe moved to an old gas station on Main {1425} and Evergreen. You just can’t buy gas on North Main Avenue any more.

Luther’s moved in 2013 across the street on Main {1422} near the Pegasus nightclub. They will move again when their new home in the Tobin Lofts is finished in April. They still serve the best chili around (menu here).

The original café, started by Luther Combs in 1949, was demolished long ago. The Sinkin EcoCentro {1802} sits there now. The building was named after Solar San Antonio founder William R. Sinkin, who died last year. The EcoCentro is a community center which provides residents of San Antonio with information to achieve a more sustainable lifestyle.

The old H-E-B {1509} on the corner of Evergreen Street was torn down when they built their supermarket on Olmos Drive. The Tobin Lofts covers two blocks along Main Avenue now.

(Read more: Where I Live: Tobin Lofts at San Antonio College.)

Beginning in the WWII era, many of the old houses in Tobin Hill were converted into apartments. The growth of SAC in the 1980s and 90s meant the destruction of hundreds of living quarters. The Tobin Lofts returns residential options for area students.

Main Avenue was once a major artery through the heart of San Antonio. South Main now only flows in fits and starts. Main Avenue stops at Main Plaza and begins again south of the courthouse. South Main will be blocked again by the new H-E-B Store

(Read More: In Praise of Open Streets and Avenues.)

But North Main is alive and flowing. Attractions on the avenue are as diverse as its residents. L&M Bookstore {1716} and Asel Art Supply {1524} have been there for decades. Hogwild Records {1824}, housed in an old pharmacy, specializes in music. A number of restaurants serve a variety of tastes, including Main Street Pizza Pasta {1906}, rebuilt after a fire in 2013. Nightclubs and specialty shops abound.

The nearby planetarium recently reopened after a two-year, $15 million renovation (see Bekah McNeel’s article here).  If your memory of this regional attraction is fading, it’s time for another visit. The Scobee Education Center is open to the public almost every Friday evening.

(Read More: Training for Space Travel Via Office Keyboards.)

A lot has changed on North Main. Check it out for yourself.

Main Street / Memory Lane
Poem
 by Don Mathis

The Dollar Store stands
where the Five & Dime used to be.
And across Main Street
was an old pecan tree.

My home was right there,
a private eye downstairs.
Next door, my landlords,
Jewish refugees from the war.

Tuxedos and tailoring
were their trade
in the shade
of Adelman Antiques.

In my penthouse apartment,
I’d catch a breeze
from Travis Elementary.

And not very far
stood the Santana Bar.

I’ll never know
how they escaped the code
because a bar by a school
is against modern rules.

Down the next block
by the SAC parking lot,
a row of storefronts thrived.

Dry cleaners took care
of my leisure suit wear.

The Great Gatsby served meals
named for literary heroes.

And Et Cetera Books
would feed my need to read.

Us was a shop for the head.
The pin-ball arcade
was called Ball It.
It was so great
that they made
a cafe next door,
Eat It.

And near the Cloverleaf Bar
was a sign, “Hudson Cars.”

Do you remember when
H-E-B called it a sin
to sell beer at their Evergreen Store?
Now it’s gone away
and they don’t think that any more.

Now cross over Main
and we’ll head back north.

The clubs on this end
had a different bent:
One was for topless women,
one was for gay men.

They closed the door
to the mod clothing store
and opened the Quarter House
in its place.

I used to get irate
when they demanded I.D.
I must have been
feeling old at age 23.

L&M Books
have been there a while.
They used to be at
what is now Hogwild.

Luther’s on Locust
got a new location.
Ted moved his cafe
to an old gas station.

And the Greenwood Restaurant
had a vegetarian feast.
They didn’t serve meat.
And they didn’t serve grease.

Then some Vietnamese
got the location where
Schnabel’s Hardware
was before they moved
to McCullough Avenue.

And Danny’s Pool Hall
was somewhere
around there.

I’ve always gotten a kick
from the sign in the brick
store at Dewey and Main:

“To North Pole
4,189 Miles,”
with an arrow pointing the way.

They closed Rothers Bookstore
a year? – two? – five? ago.
But I remember when
it was a new disco.

And then it was Pachinko
(or was it Pachuco?) –
There was a knife fight
right outside
and then that business died.

My buddy Gregg
worked at the Steak & Egg.
We called him Steak & Egg Gregg.

At a quarter ’til three,
that was the place to be.

Drunk guys, bleary eyed,
feeling sore,
mean and mad
because they couldn’t score.

Hustlers wanted you to believe
their rings were stolen,
their jewelry was hot,
and their watches were golden.

Back then, Buddy’s Ice House
was a classic of Texas.
It lasted until
the Sesquicentennial.

Wildflowers grow
where the flower shop was.
They mowed it down because…
who knows? Just because.

Then cross over Courtland once more
and again, you’re at Winn’s Dime Store.

It was great to relive the walk
down Memory Lane,
reminiscing about
a street called Main.

*Featured/top image: This is the view of the 1800 block of Main Avenue, looking south. A dusty front window peered into Vanity Cleaners. Gatsby’s Sandwich Shoppe had an upper level built from recycled wood.  A Mod Clothing store was next door. The Aladdin Poodle Parlor served the peacocky pooches of Monte Vista. Ball-It was a pinball arcade. It was so popular that the Rock Garden Nightclub next door became Eat-It, a bar & grill. An Exxon sign hangs above an old gas station. Through the peeling and faded paint, one could discern a previous occupant, Hudson Cars. Gas-guzzling muscle cars (Mercury, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile) cruise the street.  Photo by Don Mathis.

Related Stories:

View From The St. Mary’s Strip: Keeping San Antonio Puro

Where I Live: Tobin Lofts at San Antonio College

In Praise of Open Streets and Avenues

Fredstock: Music Festival 101 for SAC Students

11 thoughts on “Main Avenue, Then and Now

  1. There was a real grocery store. And antique shops. Louise’s. On Main was right by SAC. Buddy’s Ize House. Ahhh. The days,)

  2. You did not recall a new and intersesting establishment named “the Quarter House” designed by Architect Roger Travis for budding restauranteur Cappy Lawton. This was a special time in San Antonio simply because Architects had found a niche in the city doing smaller projects, including “The Yard” (with Newby’s hair salon) in Olmos Park and finally Taco Cabana No. 1 at San Pedro and Hildebrand.

  3. What a great history lesson for the new generation to learn about our amazing community! Thanks to our esteemed faculty member, Don Mathis, for educating us all.

  4. Thanks for the great memories. Loved going to the Great Gatsby the two story (inside) sandwiche shop. I’ve tried to remember the name of that place forever. Next to it or two shops down was my favorite clothing store – Down Under (owned by the Casseb brothers – yep, our judge used to tailor my jeans). The Quarter house was a favorite place to play air hockey, foozball and shoot pool (even though they only had 1 pool table) & drink lots of beer. We used to go to the gay men’s club on Wednesday nights and watch the drag queen shows – always good for a great evening, as they were so camp. Ate at Luthers often. Loved his red-top chili. But I thought the name of the healthfood restaurant was The Greenhouse, not The Greenwood (but I might be wrong, as that was back in the early 70s). I still have a few bookmarkers from Et Cetera Bookstore somewhere. Bought all my school books at L&M & art supplies at Asel. Jorries Furniture Store became a big ballroom. Saw several bands there, including Malo with a guest appearance on several sets by the band leader’s brother (George/Jorge?), Carlos Santana – & these were such cheap concerts! I had a job off & on at Main Bank & Trust, now the Luby’s Cafeteria. & I hung out with friends at Ed Yardang & Associates, at the north end of the block the bank was on. It was San Antonio’s premier advertising agency at the time (I remember putting in my two cents with some concepts when Cappy Lawton was looking at logos & branding for Mama’s Restaurant – it didn’t even have a name yet), run by legendary Lionel Sosa, Bev Coiner (of the Nix Hospital family) & Warren Stewart, the last two passing away far too young and it meant the demise of Yardang. I had the guys from IBM (Cypress & Main – big white office building on the S.E. corner – across from the park) in my office almost every day. I ran the Com Center for the bank, putting out form letters on two mag-card typewriters (not quite computers, but as close as you could get to one back then); I typed so fast, I used to jam the ball of the typewriters & they had to come out & unfreeze them. There was also a bar across the street on the corner of Main & Lexington(?). I got an education in local politics while hanging out there with my boss & several others. It was the late afternoon/evening watering hole of the Red Carpet Club lunchioneers. Full of mover/shakers, politicians & business owners, alike. Really opened my rose colored eyes. Spent time in several antique stores further up Main, near Woodlawn, and shopped apartments around there, although I ended up on the other side of McCullough, near Trinity. A good part of the early-mid 70s was spent on Main Ave. Such a great time to remember. Thanks for the memories.

  5. Lived upstairs in a house on Dewey near N. Main, right behind the art supply store, from early 72 till about 75 maybe? We called it The Dewey House. I helped with the build-out of Gatsby’s, ate breakfast at The Greenhouse early before they opened each day, was at The Quarter House the day they opened, ate at Luther’s when Luther still ran it… Thanks for the article, reminds me of old times.

  6. Does anyone know where Ted of Luther’s Cafe is? He was my boyfriend in the 70’s. We had to break up when I moved to Houston. Shoot, it’s only been about 38 years. Yikes.

  7. I loved Greenwood Natural Food Restaurant. One lawyer who loved to go barefoot complained when he was told he would have to wear shoes when coming inside. Sarmod Brody owned the restaurant. Bongo Joe went there for the great veggies, and another place for steak. I have their divine cheesecake recipe, made with honey, homemade yoghurt, and a lot of cream cheese. I went for the banana blintzes. I learned to cook there, though i was never on the payroll. I made steamed veggies with almonds and Swiss cheese, added after the steam had all escaped. You could sit, read magazines and visit with friends. My daughter found it pretty boring but it was a treasure. Many years later, Sarmod’s life ended after he had a stroke, I think, while driving, and his car hit a tree. None of us wanted Greenwood to close but Sarmod’s paths were music composition and Sufism. Sweet memories of Yvonne, the best woman on the planet, and Massoud, who often whistled and sang.

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