You don't know what you got 'til it's gone. No one knows the saying better than the Save La Gloria Alliance, which has fought fiercely but unsuccessfully in the past two weeks to save a 73-year-old building from destruction. It stood on the West Side corner of Brazos and Laredo — abandoned, unused, and collecting junk for nearly 40 years — until its most recent owner, Tony Limón, decided to tear it down. That's when nostalgia and love for the place began to flow from the surrounding community. And thus began the battle to save La Gloria, the Spanish name for "heaven."
In its 1930's heyday, La Gloria's rooftop dances attracted hundreds to step to the sounds of swing, jazz, blues, and Latin beats. It later became one of the first venues to feature early Tejano and conjunto music. The building's atrium contained a food market, bakery, and silent movie theater, and the outdoor multi-pump gasoline station is believed to be San Antonio's first.
Because of La Gloria's historical and cultural significance, San Antonio's 15-member Historic Design and Review Commission (HDRC) voted unanimously in September 2001 to grant the building historic landmark status, which would prevent it from being destroyed. Manuel Castillo, executive director of San Anto Cultural Arts, testified at the HDRC meeting, since it was his letter writing campaign that eventually brought the issue before the board. (Castillo was originally interested in the building as a possible space to expand his growing organization, and he began his efforts to save it when, in November of 2000, Limón's sons told him they had plans for demolition.)
La Gloria's fate then fell into the hands of the city's zoning commission, which deemed the property unworthy of historic landmark status, claiming it was an eyesore and a danger to the community because the old underground gas tanks had not yet been removed. City Council had the final vote on La Gloria's fate last November. Echoing the zoning commission's reasons, District 5 Councilman David Garcia recommended Council members vote not to designate the building with landmark status, and they followed his advice. Garcia later told the Current that building owner Limón had restored safety to the District 5 community by cleaning up the La Gloria property and removing the gas tanks. "I could not, in good conscience, vote to designate it a landmark building and hamper the owner's wishes to tear it down," Garcia said.
At the Council meeting, Castillo met other citizens, like Patti Elizondo, who were outraged that Council ignored their pleas and the HDRC's recommendations to spare La Gloria. Elizondo is the granddaughter of Matilde Elizondo, who built and originally owned La Gloria until his death, when his family sold the property. Elizondo became a vocal member of the Save La Gloria Alliance and wanted to see her grandfather's building have a second life. "My dream is to see it restored to its original glory, to see the dances under the stars happening again," she said.
The newly formed alliance made headlines when they stopped rolling bulldozers from demolishing La Gloria on Friday, March 15; they called the police since the owner didn't have a permit to demolish until the following Monday at 9 am. Then on Monday, March 18, the group once again prevented La Gloria from falling when they arrived at 9:20 am with a temporary restraining order against demolition. Alliance member and Save Our Services Chairman Ruben Espronceda was granted the restraining order when he filed a lawsuit against the city and Limón , claiming Council did not follow proper procedure when they denied La Gloria historic landmark status. Limón would have to wait for a court decision before demolition could begin.
The Alliance used this extra time to fundraise and consider loan options so that they could collectively make Limón an offer to buy the building. A weekend dollar drive near La Gloria garnered $2,700, and the San Antonio Conservation Society promised $50,000 in matching funds if the alliance raised $100,000. (Although Limón bought the building four years ago for $150,000, his recent asking price was $239,000 for work put into the property.) At a vigil held by the alliance, Vicki Grise of the Esperanza Center explained the group's determination to save La Gloria: "It's about trying to reclaim our history, because that's the center of us being culturally grounded. If you take away our history, you take away our lives."
Grise and other alliance members were therefore "devastated" when, last Thursday, district court Judge David Peeples denied the group's request for a temporary injunction, a decision that immediately dissolved the temporary restraining order sparing La Gloria from demolition. Alliance members felt much of their argument was lost when the judge refused to allow plaintiff attorneys to bring up the issue of racism when claiming the Council inappropriately voted to deny La Gloria historic landmark status. Witnesses from the city's zoning commission and preservation society did testify that the West Side has very few historical designations compared to other parts of town. Judge Peeples said he ruled primarily on evidence indicating the City Council had not voted in an illegal or arbitrary manner. In the ruling, he also clarified he was "not ordering this property to be demolished," but leaving the decision to Limón .
At press time on the morning of April 1, Limón had begun demolishing La Gloria. Alliance members, who believed they were still negotiating a deal with Limón, said they felt he lied to them and that their elected officials betrayed them. They stood in an empty lot across the street and silently watched as police barricaded surrounding roads and the bulldozers began to roar. Passersby also stopped or pulled their cars over to watch, many with tears in their eyes. Esperanza Director Graciela Sanchez said she hopes this day would be a turning point for West Side residents who have learned how to raise funds and support for their own issues, despite the outcome. "This is one of the saddest days," she expressed on behalf of the alliance, "It's cultural genocide of our communities."