Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Esperanza Peace and Justice Center leaders are asking City officials to commit $1 million to the restoration and preservation of the now-defunct Lerma's Nite Club, the iconic Westside dance hall that opened on North Zarzamora Street in 1951 and for more than four decades featured South Texas' most celebrated conjunto musicians.
Lerma's closed in 2010 after the building's owners were cited by the City for dangerous code violations, the same year the City Council approved a recommendation from the Historic Design and Review Commissions to designate Lerma's as a historic landmark.
According to the National Park Service's website: "The building that houses Lerma’s Nite Club is a postwar one-part commercial block in the historically Hispanic West Side neighborhood of San Antonio. Likely constructed in 1948 and built of unreinforced concrete masonry units, its style picks up on common Art Moderne characteristics (namely the curved corners and octagonal window) that were popular in commercial design prior to World War II. The earliest known tenants of the building included Huey’s Variety Store, the San Antonio Baking Company, and Lakeview Cleaners. By 1951, El Sombrero Nite Club is listed as occupying the space that would eventually become Lerma’s Nite Club, operated by Pablo Lerma. The property continued to change hands until 1988, when the current owners, Gilbert C. Garcia and his wife, Mary, purchased the property. Through the 1950s, Lerma’s was one of a small number of documented commercial music venues in San Antonio that regularly booked conjunto artists."
The building is now owned by the Esperanza Center.
Esperanza Center representatives and dozens of citizens spoke passionately on behalf of the preservation initiative in City Council chambers Wednesday evening, citing the building's historical significance and central place in the city's contemporary Latino cultural heritage.
Lerma's was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. Lerma's is the longest-running conjunto music venue in the nation that hosted iconic musicians in its otherwise unremarkable cinder block building with rounded corners and octagonal windows. It was what unfolded inside the building that gives the former Lerma's its landmark status.
Legendary conjunto performers were regulars at Lerma's, a low-lit, intimate space where multiple generations of conjunto lovers would gather to dance, listen to music, socialize, and revel in a uniquely San Antonio ambiante familiar.
Esperanza Peace and Justice Center Director Graciela Sanchez said the Westside has long been neglected, receiving far less public investment for cultural enhancements from the City and private entities than other sectors of the city.
"If you notice, (money has been allocated) up and down the Broadway Corridor," she said. "Yes, many cities have their museum reach, but when you take the bus, when you have two or three jobs, accessibility is important. It should be in people’s backyard too."
The Westside of San Antonio has always been a predominately working-class Latino neighborhood.
"Because we are a working class and poor neighborhood, people don’t value the architecture," Sanchez said.
Sanchez said the project restoration costs total $2.2 million. The Esperanza Center is asking Bexar County to allocate $500,000, while the Esperanza plans to raise the remaining $750,000. An anonymous donor has offered to give $250,000 if the City agrees to allocate $1 million towards revitalizing the cultural space.
"When the City wants to support a project, like the Tobin, like the Children’s Museum – all important, we’re not negating that – then it should also find ways to fund projects that are coming from the Westside and the Eastside and elsewhere," Sanchez said.
She said Lerma's sheer size, 10,000 sq. ft., would allow it to be a place that serves various purposes.
"We hope to develop it into more than just a night club," she said, adding that the Esperanza Center plans to develop a heritage center in the building that focuses on the history of conjunto music.
Migrant farmers created conjunto music at the end of the 19th century by blending German and Czech accordion sounds with Mexican ranchera while working in the fields of farms and ranches.
During the venue's 60 years of operation, the space has been in the hands of multiple owners , and existed as a laundromat, grocery store, thrift store, tire shop, meat market and music venue.
The Esperanza Center bought the decaying building in risk of demolition for $40,ooo from the owners in 2011.
William Dupont, director of the University of Texas at San Antonio's Center for Cultural Sustainability, said preserving Lerma's and its authentic heritage will provide educational, recreational and financial value to the community.
"Lerma's will create new jobs and product sales, plus bring revenue and increased investment into the immediate neighborhood and city," he said.
Dr. Tomás Ybarra Frausto, a Chicano and Latino art scholar and a member of the Westside Preservation Alliance, said Lerma's is an iconic San Antonio landmark that represents San Antonio's evolving culture.
"Culture is not static. It moves and it changes," he said. "As much as we celebrate the historic past we must pay attention to the continuity of heritage."
Ybarra Frausto said Lerma's will enhance the city's recent World Heritage designation by shining light on the people and the culture that evolved from the Spanish Missions era and the merging of two cultures, Spanish settlers and indigenous residents.
Stella Tenorio-De La Garza, the second vice president for the San Antonio Conservation Society, spoke on behalf of President Janet Dietel when she said the Conservation Society supports the Esperanza's initiative.
The Conservation Society was instrumental in keeping the building from being demolished in 2010 because of structural deficiencies, according to Tenorio-De La Garza.
"Very few historic structures on the Westside are recognized and preserved," she said, adding that saving Lerma's is an important step toward preserving the Westside's "rich cultural heritage."
*Featured/top image: A locked fenced in front of Lerma's Nite Club on North Zarzamora. Photo by Scott Ball.