Fire Destroys Historic Building… Again

Flores Cleaners

Flores Cleaners by Mike E. Perez on Flickr

It’s a story we’re all too familiar with. Fire breaks out, and less than an hour later the building is devoured in smoke and flames. This happened several years ago at the Pioneer building, one of Harlingen’s oldest and most historically significant structures. It happened again shortly thereafter at the Sun Valley Motor Hotel, an architecturally significant building built at the height of the Modernist era. Not long afterward, another historic building—The Harlingen Cold Storage Plant—went up in flames. And a few weeks ago, Brownsville’s Hotel Economico fell victim to an arsonist’s Molotov Cocktail.

Flores Cleaners Fire

Fire Destroys Flores Cleaners by Joe Hermosa / Valley Morning Star

But unlike Brownsville, Harlingen has very few pre-World War II structures. And this week, while the Valley was bracing for Hurricane Alex, we lost another of these gems in the heart of the city, near the La Placita District.

At around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, fire broke out at the Flores Cleaners building, located at the corner of Harrison and C streets. Initially, the fire was thought to have sparked from a car parked under the building’s carport on C Street, but officials are still unsure of how it began. They have not ruled out arson.

Citing information from Harlingen’s Downtown office, the Valley Morning Star stated that the building was originally a grocery store and dry cleaner with a rooming house upstairs. It was designed and built in 1928 for Tomasa Villarreal Garza by her son-in-law, a Mexican Army officer in exile.

In the past, I have been a vocal advocate for the preservation of historic structures, especially the few we have left in Harlingen. However, this particular story hits very close to home. This building is owned by my padrinos Ruben and Mary Agado. My aunt Mary’s business Agado Bail Bonds was completely destroyed in the fire. This comes only months after their home south of Harlingen was ransacked and burglarized.

My uncle Ruben has been planning a complete renovation of the building’s interior since he purchased it in 2007. Now, the building will either be rebuilt or completely demolished. We all hope that the building can be salvaged. In fact, there is minimal damage to the façade, but the city has suggested that the entire building be razed for public safety reasons. The loss of yet another historic building, and one my family worked so hard to obtain and restore, just sends me reeling. I have no words for how sad it makes me.

That is why I am asking for your help.

These days, money is scarce and so are volunteers. But I am appealing to your good nature and spirit of goodwill. This historic building needs another chance, and I am confident that with a little help, we can help to realize its full potential. If you would like to donate anything towards this goal… building materials, structural analysis, even time and effort towards cleanup, please contact me. My family, the people of Harlingen and those who rally for historical preservation would greatly appreciate it.

We all hope for a new Harlingen, a city with character and heart. We must never forget what made this city great—its rich, cultural diversity and strong, hardworking people. We should all take pride in the history of our city and do what we can to help our neighbors in a time of crisis.

Thank you.

Source: Valley Morning Star

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11 Comments

Filed under Downtown District, Historic Buildings, La Placita District, Social Innovation

11 responses to “Fire Destroys Historic Building… Again

  1. Robert Serna

    Any word on how the recovery effort is going?

  2. Mike E. Perez

    I have had positive responses and outreach from Bill DeBrooke, Desi Martinez and from a couple of friends here in Dallas. But not a peep from any other Harlingenites.

    My uncle is going to contact Jo Wagner and Megamorphosis Design, who are working on the Reese Plaza redevelopment, to see if they have any insight to offer. The current plan is to save the façade and rebuild if possible, or demolish the structure entirely and rebuild using remnants of the building.

    It’s funny how most people on other blogs rant and rave about how Harlingen is doing nothing to better itself. It doesn’t occur to them that THEY themselves are Harlingen. And that by doing nothing, they are guilty of the same exact thing they decry.

    The vocal response is plentiful on articles bashing city commissioners, or on the constant bickering between bloggers about whose website gets more traffic. But when it comes to responding to a call to action that will actually help save local, family-run businesses, restore a heavily damaged historic building and alleviate some of the heartache caused by this fire… well, it seems no one has any interest.

    I’d like to thank Bill DeBrooke and Desi Martinez, who are often insulted and accused of “keeping the city stagnant.” They are the only ones who have shown a genuine concern, and actually offered advice and temporary workspace.

  3. I’ve past by that building many times growing up. It’s amazing how a building can hold a person’s imagination and seemingly take on a life of it’s own – like an old friend. Jackson street just isn’t the same without the old Pioneer building, and I have no doubt that Harrison street now feels wrong in some weired way. When people move or pass on, it’s the buildings that remain, that preserve for us a glimpse of what was and stir the imagination of what could be. The idea of Harlingen with out Blashka Tower or Grimsel’s Seed company or Fire Station 1 is heart breaking. In South Texas everything wants to scratch you, bite you, sting you or worse, yet those that came before us persevered and left us these often unassuming landmarks.No,they’re not on the same level as the Arch de Triumph or the Brooklyn Bridge, but they’re ours.
    You’re right… people say “someone aught to do something about such-n-such”, but truth be told ~ I’m someone and you’re someone. I’d like to help. I’ve got some vacation time later this month and planned to be in Harlingen to visit family anyway- I’d love to volenteer.

    • Mike E. Perez

      Awesome, Andy! By that time, we should know more about the situation. My uncle figures that if he must demolish the existing structure, he’d like to rebuild in the spirit of the original. However, it would be unlikely that he’ll have the budget to rebuild it as a two-story building. We’ll see what happens.

  4. Robert Serna

    I can help out, too – physically rather than financially (my bank account is rather empty – but that could change). I’ll be in Harlingen at some point in August (I’m still figuring out the details on that).

  5. Saul E. Gonzalez

    My grandfather’s grocery store was housed there. If you want to see a picture of it from the mid-1930s, go here and see the collection of flyers too. http://www.flickr.com/photos/64209651@N00/sets/72157601279439943/with/4189978042/ ( I have also included a photo of my grandfather and dad in the Grocery store.) My grandfather, Catarino Gonzalez, was a pillar of the Mexican-American community and arrived in the Rio Grande Valley at the age of 14 to escape the Mexican Revolution, earn a living, and send some money back to his family in Cd. Victoria. I understand he leased the entire building from the a priest or the diocese, and then he would sublet part of the building for businesses and hotel. My father and his 4 siblings also lived on the second floor for awhile until they purchased a house on Taylor St. across from the old Baptist Hospital. It’d be a shame if they’ve torn this building down, what is the status? Please tell me it is still standing!!!!!

    • Mikey

      I’m happy to say the building is still standing. My uncle (Ruben Agado) is making progress on rebuilding after the fire. He was able to save the building shell and façade, he’s replaced the windows, and is nearly finished with the drywall on the second floor. It is so amazing to learn more about the history of this building. Too often, the Mexican-American heritage and history is whitewashed in Harlingen. Seeing the old photos and flyers is just so cool!

      • Saul E. Gonzalez

        This is great news and I have shared it with my family. While few remain in Harlingen (I am in Washington DC, born and grew up in Austin), some members of my grandmother’s family, the Herreras, still live in the area. I’ve not been to Harlingen since 1983 but we would go often for Thanksgiving and Christmas, summer vacations — I’d like to take my dad down there as well to relive old memories, including stopping by what used to be Gonzalez grocery. We included a segment on my grandfather in the book that was issued on the 100th anniversary of Harlingen’s founding, as we believed it was leaving out a significant part of the history by not making more mention of the Mexican-American community. I’ll see what else I can dig up in my dad’s shoeboxes next time I’m in Austin.

  6. Saul E. Gonzalez

    What’s the story on the reconstruction of this building?

  7. Saul E. Gonzalez

    This was published in the book commemorating Harlingen’s Centennial a few years back: “Like most towns and cities across the United States , Harlingen has its share of well known citizens, from its founding fathers, to entrepreneurs, to community leaders. But the stories of so many other important people are often lost or forgotten. One such story is that of Catarino González, who owned and operated a grocery store on Harrison Avenue for 25 years.

    Born in Jiménez, Tamaulipas, Mexico in 1900, Catarino’s family, like many families across northern Mexico , lived in fear of the wild revolutionary Pancho Villa. Catarino’s father worried that his son would be taken away by Villa and forced to fight in his army. So at the age of 15, Catarino was sent north to Mercedes to live with family friends. Once there, he was put to work in the family owned “molino”, a mill where corn and grain was ground into flour. He worked hard and developed a keen business acumen. Eventually he opened his own “molino”. Catarino’s new life was on a good roll and at the age of 23 he married 19 year old Genoveva Herrera.

    One could argue that back then family ties tended to be stronger than they are today. It was a necessity as times were difficult and having big families provided more opportunities to put food on the table. Sometimes there was no other choice. At any time, illness could take a parent, or even both parents, and leave an entire family orphaned. Children were “adopted” by aunts and uncles or cousins. It’s what was done because they were family and it was the right thing to do. Such was the case with Genoveva. Her mother, Amada Olivarez, died when Genoveva was 13 years old, and as the oldest of five children, the task of raising her siblings fell on her. She had her two sisters Martina and Margarita and her two brothers Jose and Eugenio (my grandfather). So when Catarino and Genoveva got married, he married the whole family. His stature as a loving family man grew as he and Genoveva added six children of their own: Roberto, Catarino Jr, Valdemar, Raúl, Rodolfo, and Graciela.

    It was around 1928 that Catarino moved up from running a flour mill to owning a grocery store. He was a very dedicated business man and put in endless hours at the store. In 1931, Catarino was presented with what he saw as a great opportunity to move his grocery business to Harlingen . With everyone in tow, he set up his shop on Harrison Avenue . Business prospered and within a few years another opportunity came to Catarino. It was a bigger building about 2 blocks from his current location. So another move was made and it was there where Gonzalez Grocery, or “El Parian” as it was known to the Hispanic community of Harlingen , gained its strongest foothold.

    Though many people may not admit to it, back then there were strong segregation lines between the Anglo and Hispanic communities of Harlingen . Howard Butt, of today’s HEB Grocery, owned the Harlingen and San Benito franchises of Piggly Wiggly. They were the primary and strongest grocery retailer in the area and catered to the Anglos in the area. The Hispanic community, which encompassed the area west of the railroad tracks that run along Commerce Street , didn’t have any well established grocery stores, only small mom and pop stores. The area was known as “Mexiquito” and when Gonzalez Grocery came to the area, one can easily understand the important role it had in the community. As business grew, the store expanded. Eventually it had a meat market. You could buy local produce and a vast assortment of packaged and canned goods. Advertisement flyers, which he used to promote his store and which copies today are in the possession of his children, indicate that the store had some 1,200 items, everything from traditional staple items such as coffee, milk, and sugar to household goods like knives, aspirin, and starch to even farm feed and seed. He even opened a second location on Robertson Street in San Benito . He was highly respected among his peers, indicated by the fact that he was known as Don Catarino. People trusted him and borrowed money from him. He had a strong work ethic. It is said that he employed over two dozen people. Many of his employees, striving to make something of themselves like Catarino did, continued to grow professionally. Some of them moved on and started their own grocery businesses, like the Escobedo and Cano families. The success of Gonzalez Grocery, and those who were associated with it, planted the seed of the need for higher education and eventually spurred future generations of educators, doctors, and lawyers.

    To truly respect and understand what was going on, you must realize that Catarino did all this right in the middle of The Great Depression. Despite the severe economic crisis, Catarino had a strong compassion to help his community. He did everything he could for his fellow neighbors. The U.S. government began distributing relief vouchers – equivalent of today’s food stamps – as a means to help feed families. Afraid that they might not get compensated for accepting these vouchers, many businesses rejected exchanging these vouchers for food. But not Catarino. With his strong ethics and values, he gladly accepted the relief vouchers. People flowed to the store to get food. They were grateful to have food on the table and felt blessed to have someone like Catarino who could help them. All this helped to elevate his stature in the community even more.

    It is unfortunate that stories like those of Catarino get misplaced over the years. But so long as his family continues, his story will never be lost. Because his story has never before been included in the written history of Harlingen , we will never truly know the impact his store had on our Hispanic community. The store was closed in 1956 shortly after Catarino passed away. Those who do remember the store have now progressed in age and it’s become difficult to gather those stories. Now that this book about Harlingen is being put together, it is our dream to see that Catarino be formally acknowledged as a community leader, business entrepreneur, and visionary. If you or someone you know has a personal connection to Catarino or Gonzalez Grocery, my family would love to hear from you. :

    This story was written by Daniel E. Ramón from information gathered from Robert and Raul Gonzalez (my cousins) and Beatriz Perez Herrera (my grandmother).

  8. Saul E. Gonzalez

    As today was Veteran’s Day, I thought it appropriate to include a snippet about my tio Beto, who served in World War II and who worked in my grandfather’s store on Harrison St, in that building that burned: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/voces/template-stories-indiv.html?work_urn=urn%3Autlol%3Awwlatin.138&work_title=Gonzalez%2C+Roberto

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