The faces of our cities have changed dramatically over the past few decades. Many of the long-standing businesses and buildings we knew for years are gone. In many Valley towns, downtown would be almost unrecognizable to former residents.
Towns must evolve if they’re to grow. But like so many other cities, much of what made these towns special seem to have disappeared.
This is a story about what’s been, what’s been lost and what’s been saved. For those who’ve only been in McAllen a few years, this could be an eye opener.
If you’ve never heard of McAllen’s City Incinerator, don’t be surprised. It’s been gone for quite some time. This huge brick building and large red brick smokestack were located on what’s now south Bicentennial, where it curves into Wichita across from the cemetery. Demolished years ago, it was an old McAllen mainstay.
The area around that location is being considered for redevelopment for commercial expansion, says Julianne Rankin, a City Planner with the City of McAllen. But when the incinerator came down, “we had no historic preservation effort (then),” she said.
Another loss well remembered is the old central fire station on Bicentennial and Austin.
There was an effort by the Historic Preservation Council to have it be repurposed, said Rankin. “It could have qualified as historical under their guidelines, she said.
Architects and others strove to save it, writing letters asking that it be saved. But it too was demolished.
And then there’s the jail.
Rankin said what they believe was McAllen’s first jail was the first building to come down after she joined then Mayor Othal Brand’s administration. It occurred during the planning of the Texas Commerce Bank project. The jail building was part of a group of residential and commercial buildings slated to be torn down.
Rankin had had hopes this one would be saved and repurposed. The small brick building, which may have been the same one shown in the book McAllen: A Bicentennial Reflection (see page 23), was thought to be the original town jail, built sometime around 1919. But the building was torn down before it could be authenticated.
Yet another historic, important building is slated for the wrecking ball – the old McAllen Convention Center.
Mired in controversy and beloved by many, a heroic effort was made to try and save it. Urban designer Pedro Ayala dove into the task well after the City had decided to sell and demolish this classically beautiful campus. At a recent City Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Richard Cortez admitted that they didn’t consider the thought of preserving the Convention Center until way into the process. Sadly shortsighted.
The Civic Center, as it was fondly known by locals, was the hub of culture and fun for mid-Valley residents. This was where the San Antonio Symphony Music Festival, which brought first class opera to this area, was held in the 60’s and early 70’s. World class singers like Beverly Sills, Norman Treigle and Val Patacchi sang before middle schoolers lucky enough to attend their first special opera dress rehearsal.
The Civic Center was home to numerous Community Concerts, for many residents their introduction to classical music and well-known artists. Performers like Lilly Tomlin, Doc Severinsen, Ben Vereen and Jerry Lewis wowed local audiences. And many local performing groups made their presence known at the Civic too: the Valley Symphony Orchestra and Chorale and the Rio Grande Valley Ballet, founded by master dancer Doria Avila, to name a few. These entities have been long lived thanks to the Civic.
But while the Civic may be heading towards a sad ending, other special places of historical note have and will survive for our children to appreciate.
McAllen’s old post office, on South Main and Chicago, escaped the wrecking ball. Once called La Placita, through the efforts of PalmFest fundraising efforts approximately ten years ago, it was saved and repurposed. The building now houses the City’s meter reading and traffic divisions and is home to our local defacto history museum, the McAllen Heritage Center.
Also receiving historic designation was the former Paris Gum Factory. In October, 2013 it received a Texas Historical Marker and a City Landmark Marker.
The art deco building has been repurposed, said Rankin, but it’s intact. Click here to view a short video made by the founder’s grandson of its history as a bubble gum factory.
A historic location marker commemorates where a predominantly African American church and school once stood. Earlier this year the site of the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church was designated a McAllen Historic Landmark. Located on Booker-T Avenue at 19th Street, the site will be developed into a community garden.
When it comes to preservation, Rankin says it’s important.
“Designating the property or preserving it doesn’t truly limit your use of it or prohibit you from using it in a certain way,” she said.
“Buildings/properties from different eras have a character,” she said. “That’s what the City would like to preserve – the character of the time.”
Preserving our past, the old train station, built in 1927, on Bicentennial near Dallas were saved. This Spanish Colonial Revival-style building served the Southern Pacific Railroad’s commercial and passenger traffic. Attorney Ruben R. Cardenas and his law firm Cardenas Whitis and Stephen acquired it. To restore it, they had missing pieces of terracotta cast, fired, painted and put into the walls. It’s since received city, state and a county historic designation and may have a National Trust one as well.
McAllen’s Historic Preservation Council has saved many other historic sites. And rightly so, for what is a place without its charm, its character from times gone past? What do future generations have to look to when it comes to aged beauty and the heritage that these buildings represent? The question city fathers perhaps should be asking is: is real estate development the most important thing we want to teach our kids? Or is honoring the past, celebrating where we came from and how we got here more important than that next strip mall, that next restaurant shopping center? It’s something to think about.