Lerma’s Nite Club: The Heart of Conjunto Music

Lerma’s Nite Club is located on the westside of San Antonio and is the heart of conjunto music. This cultural bastion of conjunto music heritage is currently in danger of being demolished by the City of San Antonio. This dancehall has cultural significance because historically significant musicians have played there. Lerma’s is a very important part of the community’s collective history and is an iconic conjunto music landmark. It is the longest-running live conjunto music venue in Central and South Texas. Eva Ybarra, Henry Zimmerle, Bene Medina, Santiago Jimenez, Lidya Mendoza, Valerio Longoria and the late Esteban Jordan are only a few of the talented musicians that have played at Lerma’s Nite Club. More importantly, there are people who still danced at Lerma’s, that MET at Lerma’s. Musicians that are in the Conjunto Hall of Fame, the Texano Roots Hall of Fame, and in the Smithsonian, have played at Lerma’s Nite Club.

The building itself was built approximately 1942 and consists of five seperate sections. It is cinder block construction with Art Deco architectural features, including octogonal windows, rounded outer corners, and tile bottom front (currently painted over). The first buyer of the land to show a structure was the Wu family. An apparently wealthy family, there are photographs of them archived at the Institute of Texan Cultures. Bexar County Appraisal District records show the structure built in 1942, but that may have been the first time the property was listed in the books by The American Service Company. The property was then transferred to six other owners that also had a Chinese surname. The owners became indebted to the Great Southern Life Insurance Company and sold the land to clear the debt to Nathan and Elizabeth Karin. There is no record of property transferred to Marjorie Freedman and Doris Sideman. There are, however, deed records that show the property was conveyed from Freedman and Sideman to Morris Wise. The estate of Morris Wise sold the property to Mary and Gilbert Garcia in 1988. Each of the five sections of the building have been home to different businesses; a donut shop, a tire shop, a laundry, dry cleaners, a grocery store, a thrift store, a supply company, a meat market and a restaurant.

The largest section was first home to El Sombrero, a norteño/mexican/conjunto live music venue. In 1951, Mr. Pablo H. Lerma took over the lease of the larger section (then El Sombrero) and turned it into an exclusively live conjunto music venue and called it Lerma’s Nite Club. Mr. Lerma’s previously owned a bar called Lerma’s Place on the 900 block of Zarzamora that was registered in 1948 city directories. His son, Armando, took over the business when his father retired, but eventually he fell ill and decided not to continue with the family business.

Mary and Gilbert Garcia, and Gilbert’s father were very good friends of the Lerma’s and took over the lease, agreeing to keep using the family name. The business was registered as Lerma’s Nite Club by Mary and Gilbert Garcia after they took over the lease in 1981. The building owner passed away, and the executors of his estate decided to put the building up for sale and offered it to Mary and Gilbert in 1988. Gilbert, a saxophonist and now bar owner, and his wife Mary decided to invest their retirement savings in purchasing the building. The Garcia’s are ardent lovers of conjunto music and provide a venue for local conjunto musicians to ply their trade, get paid, and show off their musical talent. Having featured conjunto and mexican ranchera music artists since 1951, and having soley featured conjunto since late 1951, Lerma’s, as far as we know, is the longest running live conjunto music venue in central and south texas.

A portion of the Selena movie was filmed inside of the Lerma’s Nite Club. The famous Aztec “Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl” mural appeared in the movie. More recently female rock trio, Girl in a Coma, a local San Antonio band filmed their ‘Clumsy Sky’ video inside of Lerma’s. They covered one of Selena’s songs and are also influenced by conjunto music.

Conjunto music is a very unique Texan fusion of the German and Czech accordian sounds and the Mexican ranchera played by migrating farmworkers in the fields of Texas ranchers and farmers. The Texican migrant workers of Mexican descent traveled from crop to crop in communities with strong German and Czech influences entertaining their fellow family and friends. The polka sounds caught their attention and they soon began adopting the use of the accordian with the their own native bajo sexto that evolved in Mexico. Conjunto music is truly an American-born Texas music.

For people who love to dance, conjunto music runs the gamut of dance styles; polkas, waltzes, schottizes, redobas, doble paso (two-step), boleros, mambo, huapango, cumbia and mazurka. For those that love the variety of sound in music, there’s also conjunto country, a synthesis of blues, rock, jazz, salsa, latin jazz, cajun zydeco conjunto, merengue and reggae. Lerma’s Nite Club is home to many happy-to-dance couples. On a Saturday or Sunday night, couples that met there, continue to dance there. The cover charge keeps out people that aren’t serious about conjunto music or dancing, and keeps problems associated with bars at an almost nonexistent level.

On July 6, 2010, the Dangerous Premises Unit (DPU) (see Note 1) served a search warrant on 1612 N. Zarzamora motivated by a Dangerous Assessment Response Team (DART) complaint that was based on 311 calls. They found several violations at “Lakeview Cleaners.” The electrical, mechanical and plumbing violations soon extended to the remainder of the building and the other units, including Lerma’s Nite Club. Because of violations that were considered fire hazards at the cleaners and the supporting roof structure, the City of San Antonio DPU ordered an emergency evacuation of the building that included 1602-1612 N. Zarzamora. The DPU reports their findings to the Dangerous Structure Determination Board (DSDB). According to the City of San Antonio Website:
“The Dangerous Structure Determination Board (DSDB) is comprised of members designated by the City Manager from the following City Departments: Grants Monitoring and Administration, Planning and Development Services, Community Initiatives, Fire, Office of the Historic Preservation and Public Works. The DSDB is established to conduct public hearings pursuant to Chapter 6, Article VIII of the City Code to determine whether a structure constitutes a public nuisance in need of abatement. The Board may order remediation action up to and including demolition of the structure. The Board further hears administrative appeals of summary abatement actions pursuant to Chapter 14 of the City Code. Meetings are held on the second and fourth Monday of each month, excluding City holidays, at 8:30 AM in City Council Chambers. Location and time are subject to change and can be verified with the liaison. Representatives of each of the six (6) departments noted above may vary for each meeting. Please contact the liaison for more information.”
This DSDB has the power to demolish private property from 24 hours to 30 days after a simple majority vote. In order to have quorum and conduct “business,” there must only be four representatives present, so a simple majority constitues only 3 votes out of 4 present. When the city demolishes a building, the value of the property is reassesed at the lower value (without a structure), and the city sends the bill for the demolition to the property owner and puts a lien on the property. The standard timeline for the owner to pay back the demolition costs is usually 90 days, otherwise the property is lost to the lien holder (which in this case would be the City of San Antonio). Current estimated cost of demolition for the whole building is at $40,000.

Lerma’s Nite Club hadn’t had a problem with code compliance and this was pretty sudden for Gilbert and his family. On top of losing the two renters and the income from his dancehall, he’s been having to work more at his taxi driving business to make up the shortfall. Lerma’s Nite Club owners and building owners, Mary and Gilbert Garcia had to present themselves before the DSDB on July 26th, only 14 working days later. They were expected to have a structural engineers report, estimates, a timeline and a scope of work, and a source of funding. Up until the Wednesday before the hearing, the owners were not aware that they would be appearing before a “demolition” board. Gilbert Garcia thought that he would have to address code compliance concerns, not fully understanding the power wielded by said DSDB.

Luckily, he was able to garner a structural engineers report that stated that the structure was viable and could be repaired, and he had a single roof estimate. The timeline and the scope of work was not available, but he had applied for a personal loan that had been turned down. In the short time before the hearing and his realization of the severity of his hearing, there was an outpouring of support from the community against the demolition and requesting that Gilbert and Mary be given more time to do a feasability study and continue to find a way to do all the necessary repairs. Twenty eight people showed up to the City Council Chambers where the DSDB meets, and fourteen people spoke at the podium, some more than once, for a total of twenty speakers. The Westside Development Corporation (WDC) and the District One office read a letter at the hearing in favor of granting reprieve and an extension. Several letters of community support were also submitted for the public record. The DSDB granted a 60 day extension and offered more time in which to meet their strict guidelines. However, Lerma’s remains on a demolition-track.

A group of community members has banded together and formed the SAVE LERMA’S coalition. The website is at www.SaveLermas.org, and is being hosted and was designed in kind by www.SanAnto.com. The group is currently organizing community fundraisers and conducting a general cleanup of the property (through a volunteer effort) and has received in-kind architectural services from Community Design Studio, and just received a grant for a more detailed structural engineers report for $1,500 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Westside Development Corporation is providing pro-bono business consulting services. The owners and supporters have to appear before the DSDB group on September 27, 2010 along with estimates, a more detailed structural engineers report, a timeline and a scope of work and a source of funding of which can include community fundraisers, alternative lenders, traditional lenders, and donations.

The owners of the building are currently fending off the city from demolishing their treasured family business and in the midst of an Art Deco restoration project. The building is still standing, but is currently not open for business.

Note 1: taken from the City of San Antonio Website:
“The Dangerous Premises Unit is made up of nine Dangerous Premises Investigators and one Supervisor. The Unit is specifically assigned to address concerns regarding vacant and dilapidated structures. These structures often threaten the health and safety of surrounding neighborhoods because they attract vagrants and illegal activity and they often become home to rodents and snakes. Many of these structures are potentially unsafe and because of the lack of maintenance, they become dilapidated to the point of potentially collapsing. Depending on the condition of the structure, the structure may be cleaned and secured; or demolished by the City as the owner’s expense.”
Lerma’s Nite Club was neither vacant or dilapidated, and until this time hadn’t received any structural code violations. We realize that repairs must be made, but there were three tenants conducting business out of this property until July 6th. The building is currently not open for business. The owners of the building are currently fending off the city from demolishing their treasured family business and in the midst of an Art Deco restoration project.

Read more detailed articles concerning the DSDB and the havoc wreaked on poor people’s homes and the inadvertant forced economic stimulus plan (widespread demolitions) under way in San Antonio and that Lerma’s is having to participate in at:

you can hear clips of conjunto music at this link: http://www.pbs.org/accordiondreams/pioneers/index_alt.html

video of Girl in a Coma that features the Lerma’s classic interior, checkerboard dance floor, selena movie mural, and red light lamps: