Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Behind a salmon-colored Adirondack chair seemingly made for a giant is a wall of greenery and the words “Dream Big.” As one of several backdrops at a new photo studio in a rented space downtown, it could be about the building’s owners.
Mario and Sandra Serrano of Corpus Christi bought the building at 1120 E. Commerce St. in 2015. Long vacant, the circa-1920s building had fallen into such disrepair that the window frames were boarded, old doors served as flooring, and the sun’s rays poured in through the roof along with damaging rains. A remodel in the 1960s had shrouded the brick façade in metal and plexiglas.
Other potential buyers had walked away from the historic property during the seven years it sat on the market, they said, and some wanted to demolish it. But if the Serranos couldn’t see the potential, they could at least feel a deep sense of commitment to realizing a father’s dream.
“He was a real visionary,” Sandra said of her father, Raul Reyna, who owned the Hammond Building, as it was once known, and once owned the Best Western property across the street from it. She said he always felt the growth in downtown San Antonio would eventually move east.
But Reyna passed away in 2011 and left the building to his nine children in the hope they would join together in renovating the old boarding house and livery into a boutique hotel. Instead, Sandra said, the family focused on their Texas Driving School businesses here and in Corpus Christi and put the building up for sale. Mario was the one who convinced Sandra to buy her siblings’ shares in it.
Today, she’s glad they did. “To me, it’s sentimental,” she said. And though it’s not going to be the hotel her father envisioned, the building that sits at the gateway to St. Paul’s Square, Sunset Station, and the East Side will again welcome people to the neighborhood.
On Monday, the couple watched as the ground surrounding the building was being leveled for a 12-space parking lot, one of the last projects of a four-year renovation. Sandra beamed with pride over how much of the project Mario had done himself, and both said they are glad the project they have personally financed to the tune of $300,000 is nearing completion.
There were many hurdles along the way, Sandra said. Vacant for more than 40 years, the Hammond Building had no connection for electricity. The request to CPS Energy took more than a year to be fulfilled. “When the lights came on, we were crying,” Sandra said.
They also had to get approval from the Office of Historic Preservation for the improvements they wanted to make to the exterior. The Historic Design and Review Commission signed off on the changes in 2016 and recommended reducing the height of proposed fencing and submitting a landscaping plan. The City contributed $9,000 for the project through the Center City Housing Incentive Policy, Sandra said, and the renovation also qualified for Inner City Reinvestment and Infill Policy fee waivers and tax breaks.
Up a reinforced stairwell original to the building, the Serranos transformed a space that was once 14 boarding rooms into three fully furnished, modern apartments. Mario designed the floor plans, and Sandra designed and sourced the interiors. They kept the exposed plaster on the walls and retained the 8-foot doorways and hired an expert mason to repair the brick in some places.
The spacious apartments offer modern kitchens and bathrooms and decorator finishes, as well as views of the Tower of the Americas and the Alamodome. With their youngest child headed to college soon, the Serranos plan to occupy the two-bedroom apartment, at least part time, and rent the other two one-bedroom spaces.
In early March, the Serranos received one of three storefront grants from San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE) to restore a second-floor balcony on the street side of the building and pave the parking lot.
On the ground floor of the building, Dustin Ray has installed a series of photo backdrops in preparation for opening day, April 3, of his business, known as Palm 91. The Serranos are leasing the space to Ray after being approached by a number of other business owners, including those hoping to set up a tattoo shop, a coffee house, restaurants, and bars. “There was a lot of interest,” Mario said.
The tagline for Palm 91 is “tell your story,” so the store is designed not only for selfie-enthusiasts who enjoy themed backdrops, Ray said, but also as an uplifting experience for anyone wishing to document their personal story of overcoming a challenge or difficulties in life.
“The name comes from my favorite Bible scripture, Psalm 91, so it has meaning for me,” said Ray. “But I also love palm trees.”
As a ranch broker from Boerne, Ray said he never ventured much into downtown San Antonio before starting the new business. “But I’ve developed a heart for the city,” he said. “I love being here around all the activity during the day.”
One of the most unusual backdrops Ray created for his shop is a rainbow of doors suspended from the ceiling. It is titled “Be Bold SA,” and the tagline reminds visitors, “Opportunities can often be missed if you aren’t bold enough to knock. We believe your future is bright!”
Other winners of SAGE storefront grants were the real estate holding company Sirrah Management, which will use the grant for fencing, and Ross Hair Salon, for improved railing and siding.
The deadline to submit applications for the next round of matching grants is June 11.