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How Some Laredo Residents are Saving Historic Buildings from the Wrecking Ball

From Texas Standard:

Laredo is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Between 2007 and 2012 the city grew by more than 13 percent. Downtown merchants, like Maria Velazquez, have been noticing the change.

"They are moving here from everywhere! – especially from Mexico," Velasquez says in Spanish.

That's driving a demand for housing. Subdivisions are popping up around the city and construction is booming, but some old buildings are being torn down to make way.

"I've heard they're so old that if you step in, they'll collapse on you," Velasquez says.


Since the 1990s, the city of Laredo has been trying to strike a balance between preservation and development. A 1996 city council resolution cites a study that showed 75 percent of the historic buildings that had been demolished in the United States, up to that point, were replaced by surface parking.

Laredo wants to avoid that.

For Elizabeth Romano-Sames, preservation has become personal. "Old homes? I grew up in old homes, I love stuff like this, I love the architecture, I love the lines, I love the wavy glass," she says.

We are standing inside an old home that Romano-Sames is renovating into a restaurant and bar. The home was built in 1870. The glass in the building is original – still wavy, because back then, they poured the glass by hand.

Romano-Sames shares her passion for renovation with her husband Hank. A couple of years ago, they started buying historic buildings in Laredo. Some buildings were ornate Victorians, others were Spanish colonials. All were marked for demolition.

"My husband and I are interested in revitalizing downtown Laredo, and we have a bunch of buildings," Romano-Sames says.

She says they've managed to save six or seven historic buildings so far, but it’s been expensive; there are always more slated for destruction. They've asked their friends to embrace their mission.

Bill Luft, a 72-year-old architect and designer, is the person with the artistic eye – he sees the potential in a crumbling building. Take the restaurant they’re currently renovating:

"This was just awful," Luft says. "There was no glass here. No windows. It was all boarded up, it was terrible looking. We found the arches in the wall and put them back to mark where they were."

He's done more than that for the old building which they're transforming into the restaurant and bar.

"The new part – we just kept it kind of contemporary, not to even try to be the same as the old building," Luft says. "It's compatible, but it honors the old building."

The Siete Banderas, or Seven Flags, restaurant and bar opens this weekend.

Most of the buildings they’ve saved from the wrecking ball will be turned into businesses. Historian Margarita Araiza also sees another role for the sites, as tourist attractions or educational locales.

We step into a home in downtown Laredo, where some of the ceiling beams are marked with the date the house was built.

"It says it right up there Octubre 21 de 1861, and then I think it has some initials," Araiza says.

Araiza has run into some obstacles. She leads the Webb County Heritage Foundation. She says few people want to preserve old buildings anymore.

"We suffered a big loss a couple of weeks ago, in terms of loosing a very beautiful historic building that we fought very hard to save," she says. "The Webb County Courthouse Annex, built in 1916 just in the verge of turning 100, was recently demolished."

The group met with Webb county officials a number of times to try and buy the building, but the county thought the courthouse was a liability and had to come down. At an August public hearing, Araiza testified before the Webb County Commissioners Court and Judge Tano Tijerina.

"I think the Texas Historical Commission would be appalled to know that that building is being slated for demolition," Araiza said at the hearing.

"More than anything we are taking care of all the county because something happens," Tijerina said. "We are going to have to be responsible for – get in front of a camera and respond – why did you do this? Why did you do that? We are in a tough situation here."

"For a building that they claimed was on the verge of collapse and crumbling before our eyes, and an imminent danger to the health and safety of the public, it took them two weeks to take it down," Araiza says, speaking with me later.

The county has yet to announce plans for what used to be the courthouse – now a vacant lot.

Araiza, Luft and Romano-Sames say they fear it might soon become a surface parking lot.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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