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Some historic hotels restored while others linger

By Fernando Del Valle

The Brownsville Herald

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 11:40 a.m. MDT

Later, it became known as the Reese Hotel before the Harlingen Housing Authority began operating it as Heritage Manor in 1970.

By 2005, the agency had shut the doors of the 73,000-square-foot building.

Then in 2009, Jo Rae Wagner planned to transform part of the city's downtown when her company, CTO Inc., bought the five-story building for about $400,000.

"I envisioned a multipurpose building with a restaurant," Wagner said.

A year later, she and her son Todd Aune launched the renovation project that's cost her about $6 million "so far," she said.

"We looked at what was here in 1927. It was a beautiful building so we wanted to keep the exterior as close as we could" to the original Reese, she said.

"We actually had to take the building down to the brick," she said.

In 2011, Wagner opened her version of the Reese, featuring Colletti's Italian Restaurant along with a fifth-floor events center.

"We've become a destination," Wagner said, referring to the restaurant that draws customers from across the Valley. "People love the ambience. They say they forget they're in Harlingen and think they're in a big city."

On the second, third and fourth floors, she plans office space and maybe a boutique hotel, she said.

"It's very attractive to the downtown area," she said of the project. "We tried to do it so the community can benefit. It's a great feeling to know people love it as much as I do."

Since the late 1980s, Gustavo Acevedo dreamed of buying the San Juan Hotel, a Texas Historical Landmark that's one of the upper Valley's oldest buildings.

"I'd seen it gradually deteriorate and I thought, 'Man, that would be a good place to fix up,'" Acevedo said.

In 2006, Acevedo, who worked as an attorney for the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district, bought the building from then-school board member Roy Rodriguez.

"I've always been fascinated by the building's age and architecture — the Spanish revival style," Acevedo said. "I've always been a history buff. It's a unique building for the Valley. The Spanish revival architecture is very unique in terms of hotels."

Acevedo planned a $2-million project to renovate the building into a hotel, restaurant and bar.

But after the national recession rattled the local economy, he put his plans on hold, he said.

"It could be a gathering place," Acevedo said. "I always saw a lot of potential."

In Brownsville, El Jardin Hotel has stood since 1927, a monument to an era when Howard Hughes, Charles Lindbergh and Joan Crawford stayed as its guests.

By the time Matamoros businessman Marte Martinez bought the hotel in 1986, its restaurant had closed and guests lodged in only two of the building's eight floors.

"It was an investment," grandson Hugo Martinez said. "We were interested in remodeling it and reopening it."

The family planned a $4.5 million project to revive the hotel that juts across the city's skyline.

"Our dreams were there," Hugo Martinez said. "We didn't want to change the historical look. We wanted to keep it alive."

But after his grandfathers' death in 1988, the project stalled amid Mexico's peso devaluations, Martinez said.

For about 15 years, the property has been up for sale, he said.

"It has a lot of history in it," Martinez said.

In San Benito, many dream of breathing new life into the Stonewall Jackson.

Built in 1927, the grand hotel served as the center of society in the town that became an agricultural hub.

But decades of decay led city officials this month to request that owner Omar Cuevas bring the building up to code while they urged tenants to vacate.

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