Some historic hotels restored while others linger

By Fernando Del Valle

The Brownsville Herald

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

This Sept. 20, 2012 photo shows the historic San Juan Hotel in San Juan, Texas. The hotel is a Texas Historical Landmark that’s one of the upper Valley’s oldest buildings.

Valley Morning Star, Dina Arevalo, Associated Press

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — When Patti Dittburner thinks about the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in San Benito, she envisions a project to revive that city's decaying landmark to the glamour of its glory days more than 50 years ago.

"The light bulb blinks when I think about the Stonewall Jackson," she said.

Then she remembers the mammoth project she and her husband, developer Larry Dittburner, undertook in 1998 to renovate the crumbling Cortez Hotel in the heart of Weslaco, their hometown.

"Then the light bulb goes off," she said with a chuckle. "We were younger then."

The Rio Grande Valley's old hotels stood for decades as the social capitals of their communities before falling by the wayside. But they still capture the magic of an era when land barons courted northern businessmen who helped transform the region into one of the nation's agricultural meccas.

In recent years, several entrepreneurs have tried to bring the region's historic hotels back to life — some have made their dreams come true, others are still chasing them.

The old Cortez Hotel is now known as Villa de Cortez and stands as the model of a project that helped revitalize Weslaco's downtown.

The renovation of Harlingen's Reese Hotel drove a push to revive the city's historic Jackson Street district.

But the fate of the Stonewall Jackson hangs in limbo, facing the scrutiny of city officials who want its owner to bring San Benito's historic landmark up to code.

Restoring an old hotel to the charm of its heyday requires a long-term, major commitment, Patti Dittburner said.

"It takes passion and money. If somebody has the idea, I think San Benito needs that legacy," she said.

The Dittburners helped lead the way for others who had similar dreams.

The Cortez Hotel opened its doors in 1928, becoming a premier social hub of the Mid Valley.

But the old four-story building eventually became an eyesore in the heart of downtown Weslaco, Patti Dittburner said.

"It was the home of pigeons, poverty and prostitutes," she said. "Every year, it looked a little worse."

But she had a vision to revive the ramshackle building to its grandeur.

"It's always been a dream of mine. I thought it would be wonderful to bring that building back to its original condition," said Dittburner, who was a member of the city's main street board charged with the revitalization of Weslaco's downtown.

"I thought, 'Maybe this is possible,'" she said. "The ugly Cortez didn't make anything look good."

In 1997, she and her husband planned the renovation of the building they bought for about $300,000.

"It was a passion," she said. "We had to completely gut the whole thing — plumbing, electrical, everything. We didn't have a drawing — it was just all in your mind. My mind remembers pictures of all the places I've been to in the world and I thought, 'I want to do that, I want to copy that.'"

In 1998, the couple opened the Villa de Cortez, which features a ballroom, restaurant and retail and office space.

"It makes me feel good. It's just real neat," she said. "We thought it was time to give back to the city. I don't think there's anything I could do different. I feel so thankful that the citizens of Weslaco can come and feel connected."

In Harlingen, the Reese-Wil-Mond opened in 1927 to become a centerpiece of the city's downtown.

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