San Juan Hotel, one of the Valley’s oldest, faces uncertain future

Preservationists hope to find a new use for the building before it’s torn down.

By Michael MarksJune 17, 2024 2:52 pm, ,

The San Juan Hotel, originally built in 1919, is one of the Rio Grande Valley’s oldest standing boarding houses. 

The hotel is a state historic landmark, but it’s also no longer in use and has fallen into disrepair. The City of San Juan, which owns the building, has plans to remake parts of the downtown area – and some community members are concerned that will mean the destruction of the San Juan Hotel.

Gabriel Ozuna, preservation chairman of the Hidalgo County Historical Commission, spoke to the Texas Standard about the hotel’s history and options for its future. 

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What’s historically significant about the San Juan Hotel? 

Gabriel Ozuna: The hotel opened in 1920, and it was built as a regional gathering place for local business leaders and land speculators during what we call the Magic Valley era, which is approximately the 20s and 30s. And it was meant to draw business to the new downtown area in the city of San Juan and provide a centralized area in the Rio Grande Valley to host land parties coming from up north.

It was segregated on the Anglo side of San Juan, south of the railroad tracks. And in its later years, circa 1960, it started to decline. It was closed for general business, with the exception of its most famous long-term tenant, Tom Mayfield, who’s been the subject of recent controversy and intrigue.

Well, after Mayfield’s death in 1966, the hotel was vacant and in bad shape until it was purchased by the Sigle family in 1981. Glenn and his son David restored the property and brought the hotel back to life in 1983, and around then is when it got its state landmark status. And for a few more years, it served as this gathering place for the community.

Unfortunately, after 1994, Glenn Sigle died, and his son and widow realized they couldn’t keep running the hotel by themselves. And they started to look for a buyer who would be able to carry on that legacy. Unfortunately, after a series of absentee owners, it fell into disrepair until finally it was purchased by the city of San Juan in November of last year.

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What’s unique about the hotel? 

It would be very difficult to tell the history of San Juan, Texas, without the San Juan Hotel. In fact, you know, there’s a well known book of the Images of America series published by Arcadia Publishing – the hotel’s on the cover of that book for a reason.

You compare it to what’s significant in other areas: It’s like telling the story of Fort Worth without the stockyards, or telling the history of Texas without the Alamo. These are the sites that contribute to the history. This is where people met. This is where history happened.

And so when it comes to preservation, it’s not enough to just tell that story in the abstract. We want to point to the places where that history happened. And I think that, beyond, you know, much anything else, is why it’s significant and why it’s unique in San Juan.

And to be honest, there just isn’t a whole lot left of historic significance in the Mid Valley like this being on a prominent location right on US Business 83, which thousands of people pass by every week. It’s a familiar place that continues to contribute to the history of the Valley, even though it’s not been in use in the last 20 years or so. It’s still significant to the people because it’s there, it’s familiar, and it’s a part of the fabric. 

Kristen Cabrera / Texas Standard

So what was your reaction when you heard that it may be taken down?

I was a bit surprised and definitely disappointed because I had been speaking with the previous owner, and we even shared a couple of emails back and forth about possible options for its restoration and an adaptive reuse. And so when I found out that the city had purchased it, I was surprised, definitely.

And so my first step was to kind of use the public meeting environment, you know, the city council meetings and whatnot, to address the city of San Juan and to tell them that, hey, you know, I now realize you’ve bought this building and you’re thinking of a demolition, but it doesn’t have to be your only option. And that we would really like to work with the city to explore some of these other options that don’t involve demolition and could fit into the city’s plans for that part of town.

Well, what are some of those other options, in your opinion?

Well, for starters, there are significant tax credits available that, you know, right. Right now, it’s owned by the city, but the city has an economic development corporation. And part of the scope of any EDC is to try to seek out development and investors that can fit with certain properties that the city owns.

So I would say that it’d be a great starting point if the city just started to look for, hey, who would be interested in buying this property and taking advantage of these tax credits, which could bring back upwards of 40% or 45% of what would take to restore the building. Those could be rebated back to that investor. And there are companies out there that this is all they do and they’re specialists at it.

Another avenue is pursuing grants. The Texas Historical Commission, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, even the National Park Service itself has various grants available for historic properties that are brick-and-mortar grants – things like grants for preservation plans and structural assessment surveys.

At current the city hasn’t even done an assessment to determine what it would take to restore the building, or if it’s even, you know, structurally unsound, as some of the partners that they brought into the downtown development plan have claimed it is. So if they’re making claims that it’s going to be too expensive or it’s too structurally unstable to save, then we’re going to ask them to show us where in the reports those claims come from.

How would you characterize the city’s receptiveness to an alternative to tearing it down so far?

I’ve talked to the city now several times during these public meetings, and I think they’re interested. I don’t think anybody is as cynical as to say that, you know, nobody wants to try to save historic buildings if there’s a reasonable way to do it. But the truth is that these things take time and patience and a little bit of work, you know, working with local partners, listening to the community and taking the time to seek out those grants and opportunities.

So one of the big things that we were able to land recently is we got placed at the top of Preservation Texas’ Most Endangered Places List for 2024. Preservation Texas is well known, well respected, and when you get listed on their list,  that’s something that can help us score higher on some of these grants that the city might, hopefully, work with us to apply for in the next year or two.

So if they’re willing to work with us and willing to kind of go through the process, then I’m optimistic that we can work together to save the building.

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