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.
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.
In 2009, Cuevas and Esmeralda Nelson bought the building from Patricia T. Brown for $126,491, records show.
Cuevas did not return telephone calls requesting comment.
But Cuevas said an August 2011 interview that he planned to renovate the building.
"We want to bring it back to its glory days," Cuevas said at the time.
Ricardo Partida and Alma Flores, who said they invested in the hotel's restaurant, said they worked to rid the hotel of drug users and prostitutes.
"A lot of people told me every time they hear a siren it goes to the Stonewall Jackson," said Partida, who said he and Flores own a small restaurant in Nuevo Progreso. "We were trying to give it a different image. People noticed the police didn't go there anymore. Things were changing."
Partida and Flores said they planned a $2.5 million renovation project with Gustavo Cantu, a former Cameron County probation department supervisor.
As part of the project, the group planned to turn the restaurant area into a culinary school while the hotel would become a nursing home, Cantu said.
But the project stalled before Partida and Flores left the hotel in July, they said.
"Everyone's grasping at straws trying to find a way to save it," said Tootie Madden, president of the San Benito Historical Society.
The building remains a beloved historical landmark, she said.
"Even if the city condemns it, I think they should just board it up and not take a wrecking ball to it," Madden said. "You hope someone will come along with deep pockets and do something with it. You want to preserve the architecture of the time."
Information from: The Brownsville Herald, http://www.brownsvilleherald.com
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