News Column

Old is New: Harlingen before and after transformations

May 4, 2014

By Fernando Del Valle, Valley Morning Star, Harlingen, Texas

May 04--Downtown Harlingen is a treasure-trove of historic buildings.

Built around the 1920s, they were at one time seed and feed stores, hardware stores, doctors' offices, pharmacies and banks. In those days you found lunch counters and soda fountains, a hotel and a theater downtown.

Many of those old buildings have been transformed and now include art galleries and a museum, events centers and reception halls, urban lofts and antiques shops.

This month, the city is putting the spotlight on the downtown buildings as it celebrates its heritage.

In observance of National Preservation Month, the city is holding several special events that include a photography exhibit of vintage edifices titled "Downtown Harlingen Back in the Day" at D'Arte Centre, said Cheryl LaBerge, Harlingen's Downtown manager.

A photography contest and an oral history project that aims to record residents' stories and memories of Harlingen will help observe the month dedicated to historic preservation, LaBerge said.

"The history we have here is very important to maintain, particularly the architectural history," said Bill DeBrooke, owner of several Jackson Avenue area buildings who spearheaded a revitalization project that transformed Harlingen's downtown.

The city's downtown was built on land that city founder Lon C. Hill bought from Cameron County and the state of Texas after the railroad crossed the area known as Six-Shooter Junction in 1904, DeBrooke said.

In the 1960s, the city's downtown began to change when Sunrise Mall opened, leading some businesses to move out of the Jackson Avenue area, DeBrooke said.

Other downtown merchants, DeBrooke said, tried to revamp their old buildings, masking them in metal facades to give them a modern touch aimed at drawing customers.

"In the 1980s, Harlingen's downtown, like many downtowns in the United States, was nearly deserted," LaBerge said.

So in the late 1980s, city leaders launched a project aimed at revitalizing the downtown area, she said.

In 1990, DeBrooke bought his first building at 218 W. Jackson Ave., Harlingen's oldest building that was built as a pharmacy and doctor's office before housing a U.S. Post Office station, LaBerge said. Today, it's the home of Jackson Street Antiques, she said.

"It had great potential," DeBrooke said. "It's a cool-looking building -- a nice South Texas-style brick building."

In the 1990s, antique stores helped draw customers to the city's downtown.

In 1991, June and Tony Ramirez opened the Antique Emporium, the downtown area's first antique store, in a building at 123 E. Jackson Ave., LaBerge said.

She said the building was built in the 1920s as the Palm Hotel before Day's Drug Store opened on the first floor in 1933, featuring a lunch counter and soda fountain.

Until it closed in the mid 1980s, the drug store remained one of the area's hot spots, LaBerge said.

"It was a real hub for lunch," LaBerge said. "It was a gathering place for teenagers after school for a root beer float."

Today, across the city's downtown, property owners like David Schoch have brought new life to buildings that mark Harlingen's birthplace.

"A big part of what we do is try to get people to re-purpose buildings for today's marketplace," LaBerge said. "We try to encourage new businesses to move into vintage buildings and restore them."

DeBrooke calls it one of the best deals in town.

"You're caught in a situation where you basically have to upgrade everything," DeBrooke said. "But it's still cheaper than it is to build a new building and pay the mortgage or rent. Basically, you're taking an old property and giving it a new life."

Schoch transformed an old downtown building that used to house a Dollar General store into a stunning two-story wonderland.

At 101 E. Jackson Avenue, his 6,500-square-foot first floor is home to the Tip-O-Tex Model Railroad Club, a dazzling display of miniature train layouts that has become a tourist draw.

On the second floor, Schoch built a lavish retirement home in the style of a big-city loft across 6,000 square feet.

The four-bedroom, four-bath home features a sprawling living room, children's playroom and sumptuous kitchen.

"I didn't want a swimming pool and a yard to maintain," Schoch, an investor, said.

Schoch's building, built in the late 1920s, is among those featured in the photography exhibit.

In 2009, Jo Rae Wagner planned to revive the Reese-Wil-Mond, the grand hotel that opened in 1927 to become a centerpiece of the city's downtown.

So her company, CTO Inc., put down about $400,000 to buy the five-story building that the Harlingen Housing Authority had operated as Heritage Manor since 1970.

In 2011, Wagner opened her version of the Reese, featuring Colletti's Italian Restaurant along with a fifth-floor events center.

"There are lots of re-purposed buildings downtown," LaBerge said. "In order to save the old buildings, they have to be economically viable. It's kind of like recycling buildings."


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Source: Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, TX)

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