Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The Hermann Sons Life Home Association Building marquee fronting St. Mary’s Street just south of Nueva Street still reads “Bowling Lanes,” though the lanes have been defunct for years. The sign recently advertised “monthly parking available,” but now beckons with Friday night trivia and bimonthly Cajun dances.
A sidewalk sandwich board out front touts happy hour specials, pool, darts, and free parking. Something is afoot at Hermann Sons, which once thrived as a members-only social club, but lost its allure with demographic change and general economic decline in its downtown neighborhood.
Now, with rapid redevelopment occurring all around the 1911 building and its neighbor building that houses the still-active Hermann Sons Life insurance company, an influx of new board members is looking to revive its potential as a neighborhood gathering spot at 525 S. St Mary's St.
“I’d love to get bingo going again,” said Lori McCorquodale Todd, who joined the board in 2016. Along with twin sister Lisa McCorquodale Robalin and board President Joseph Figo, Todd has been actively fundraising for the nonprofit organization that oversees the building and programming for the Rathskeller bar in the basement.
The building retains many original features, including tile on the first floor with inlays reading “ODHS 1911” – the German abbreviation for “Order Of Hermann Sons,” and the building’s year of construction – and stained glass windows dating back to a 1937 addition. Originally built as a meeting place for eight member lodges of the Hermann Sons Home Association, many meeting rooms are still active, as the various lodges plan charity events throughout the region.
Hermann Sons maintains more than 100 lodges throughout Texas, Todd said, and she herself has been a lifelong member.
The older board members, many in their 80s, told Todd that "we literally don’t have enough money to stay open, and we’re going to have to sell the building,” she said. “And I remember being here as a little girl. … I can’t let that go. I’m so passionate about it now. There’s just something I feel here, it feels like family.
“It feels like a part of San Antonio history that we have to preserve.”
Life On Every Floor
Todd convinced the board to give her a chance to prove the viability of the Rathskeller bar, second-floor ballroom, and eventually the old bowling lanes and rooftop bar, should her plans take hold.
“So here I am, volunteering to run the bar,” she said, pointing to pictures of her grandparents still hanging on the wood-paneled walls.
Todd said she’d been coming to Hermann Sons since she was 6 years old, with her grandmother and grandfather Willie Mae and Joe Shaw. Joe ran the basement bar as a volunteer while Willie Mae bowled on the second floor, joined by Todd, who would run up and down the stairs seeking grandfather’s nickels to pay for another game.
The lanes have been closed since 2005, Todd said. She now leads tours after trivia nights end, pointing out details like the bygone, perfect “300” game commemorated with the stenciled name “Dannelson” and a United States flag hung above lanes five and six. Click through the gallery below to see more images of the bowling alley.
Clear plastic scoring sheets, with grease pencils and overhead projectors above each lane, were state-of-the-art at the time the alley was popular in the 1960s and ’70s, and these were the first automated bowling lanes in the state of Texas, Todd said.
"We have very little operating funds, but we would love to" reopen them, Todd said.
For the time being, memories must suffice. On one recent Saturday night, bar patron John Gray told bartender Steve Flandro that long ago he had also bowled upstairs, every Friday night with his mother, beginning at age 6. He returned 20 years ago to bowl with his wife, Gail, and their kids. This time, Gail and John brought friends Lisa and Rey Niño to the bar.
“I like that it’s kind of quiet and laid-back,” Lisa said. Only four other patrons populated the bar.
Gray gave Flandro an impromptu tour of the room, pointing out the old phone booth (now behind the corner stage), and an old snooker scoring device still hanging from the pool room wall.
“Long story short,” Gray said, “this whole place would be full” and thick with cigarette smoke.
Another bowler from days gone by said he believes a revival of Hermann Sons is possible. Pearl developer Bill Shown recalled participating in a company bowling tournament at Hermann Sons 15 years ago, while he worked for Hixon Properties.
Now with Silver Ventures, Shown is known for spotting the potential in historic properties without sacrificing their intrinsic character. “A lot of the allure of Pearl as a place is the mystery and uniqueness of these old buildings,” he said, describing such character as “crunchy and cool.”
For her revival plans to work, Todd might need to generate those big crowds again, as property taxes mount and developers eye the property. While acknowledging that developers have expressed interest, she declined to provide details.
Todd also would not specify a timeline for proving the economic viability of a revived Hermann Sons building, but pointed out that “it has every space you need” – a deck, ballroom, bowling alley, meeting rooms, bingo hall, and bar. "It could be full of life on every floor," she said.
Raising Funds, Having Fun
Todd started the building’s revival with a November wine-tasting in the old second-floor ballroom to raise funds for restoration of the grand 1937 stained-glass window that overlooks the room. The arched window depicts an ancient Germanic hero, Hermann the Cherusker, also known as Arminius, who in 9 A.D. led early Germanic tribes to victory over Roman legions.
Todd also initiated sales of Hermann Sons Fiesta medals. Together, fundraising generated enough cash, she said, to pay for the restoration. Further fundraisers are planned for the fall, in part to help restore another stained glass window overlooking the building entrance.
Eventually, Todd hopes to reopen the roof deck bar, where she said country music star George Jones used to play in the 1950s. “It overlooks the River Walk, it overlooks the courthouse,” she said of the deck, which is in need of significant repair.
Meanwhile, those who appreciate the qualities and peculiarities of a largely untouched 1911 building will find uses for the place. People regularly rent out the ballroom and bar for wedding receptions, quinceañeras and other events, Todd said, paying between $1,000 and $2,500 per event.
A throwback theatrical group, The Gumshoe Society, considers the Rathskeller ambience perfect for its murder-mystery nights, staged each weekend in a basement meeting room before intrepid participants take to the downtown streets in search of clues.
Rockcliffe Montez, costumed as a 19th-century sheriff with handlebar mustache, derby hat, and holstered pearl-handled revolver, seemed right at home sidled up to the bar on a recent Saturday evening.
“We just feel very at home with this place, and I think it’s a hidden gem,” he said. “It fits with a certain vibe that’s ‘nowadays’ without even trying, because it is what it is.”
Montez acknowledged that change cannot be stopped, but said that as a city, San Antonio embraces its culture and “oldness, their vintageness, way better than a lot of other places that have attempted and failed.” As he spoke, two T-shirted young men finished their first beers and left the bar.
“We’re getting busier, people are learning about us, people are getting excited," Todd said. "As long as we continue to see positive things happening, we will keep going.”
She summed up her present-minded philosophy by pointing to a handwritten sign preserved in the ballroom, which reads:
Im Himmel gibt's kein Bier drum trinken wir es hier
From an old celebratory German song, her English translation was “In heaven there is no beer, so we will drink it while we're here.”