Across the street from Woodlawn Lake lies Berta Almaguer Dance Studio. It was built in the 1950s to host meetings for local civic clubs, mainly the Anglers Club, a group of fishermen who regularly stopped by the West San Antonio lake.
In the 1970s, the activity center was named after Berta Almaguer, a woman who served as a Mexican and Spanish dance instructor in San Antonio for 36 years, and began hosting dance classes. Almaguer retired in 1970 after directing numerous student performances and teaching dance to more than 5,000 youngsters — as well as some of San Antonio’s most famous performers.
Much of the original structure remains intact, and despite showing its age here and there, the building still accommodates dance classes in an intimate setting against the background of Woodlawn Lake, an iconic, popular gathering spot for the community. The classes, offered by the city, are part of the nation’s longest-running city-sponsored dance program.
But the days of the existing Berta Almaguer Dance Studio might be numbered. The San Antonio Historic and Design Review Commission is scheduled to meet July 17 to consider demolishing the current structure and replace it with a two-story community center complete with space for dance studios, classrooms, storage, a small library, and city staff.
Tangoing with history
The new Woodlawn Lake Park recreational center is part of plans contained in San Antonio's 2017 voter-approved bond issue that set aside money for park improvements. According to the city, the present structure was not designed to fit dance classes. There are problems with the foundation, roof, plumbing, and support beams, too.
Among other things, the city does plan to provide more height for the dance studio, which could make the studio able to accommodate dance competitions.
People who have used Berta Almaguer Dance Studio, or continue to use it, say park improvements are nice but that the city should preserve the building as best as possible.
Kathleen Trenchard, an artist and San Antonio Conservation Society member, filed a request with the city to look into whether the building has any historical significance. City staff ultimately found the structure eligible for potential historic landmark designation, recommending the option of integrating the old building into the design of the new facility.
In her letter to the city, Trenchard says bond issue language told voters nothing about razing the dance studio building and replacing that with a larger community center. Instead, Trenchard says, if one goes by the bond package proposal, the new community center could go somewhere else around Woodlawn Lake and the Almaguer building could be left alone.
“If the city feels the building is too old and too expensive to restore, then it should seek the funds needed, perhaps in another bond issue, to restore it,” Trenchard writes. “If not, the city could be in violation of its own mandate of preserving historical buildings and fining property owners who are engaging in demolition by neglect.”
Finding a new groove
But other community members say the time has come for something bigger and more modern to replace the Almaguer building. Among the improvements in the design are public restrooms, larger dressing rooms, and classrooms for community meetings.
No doubt that as San Antonio strives to keep pace with growth, city leaders will consider hard choices, such as razing a popular, decades-old dance studio to erect a shiny new, larger building to serve the community. But for one of the nation’s oldest major cities, preserving pieces of history should be just as important.