Bringing back the beat
Community bands together to revive iconic West San Antonio dance hall and night club
Lerma’s Nite Club is more than a dance hall. It’s an institution. Since 1951, generations of San Antonians have enjoyed good times at Lerma’s, which exemplifies the definition of neighborhood, San Antonio-style dance hall.
The building that houses Lerma's was built in 1942, and actually contains five sections, each of which have been home to all sorts of local businesses over the decades. But the biggest section accommodated live Norteño, Mexican, and conjunto music. That specific area had a different name back then in the '40s: El Sombrero.
Dancing into history
After Pablo Lerma claimed the lease to that section in 1951 and renamed it Lerma’s Nite Club, the venue became the top place in San Antonio to enjoy live conjunto music. Lerma’s has long laid claim to being the longest-running establishment dedicated to live conjunto music in Central and South Texas, maybe even in the nation.
It’s a claim that gets virtually no argument. Conjunto legends such as Bene Medina, Eva Ybarra, Santiago Jimenez, Henry Zimmerle, Valerio Longoria, Lydia Mendoza, and the late Esteban Jordan have all played its hallowed halls.
Other claims to fame include a scene from the movie Selena that was filmed inside Lerma’s, as well as a music video of now-defunct local band Girl in a Coma's song “Clumsy Sky.” Families also share memories of their parents or grandparents first meeting at Lerma’s, or aunts or uncles hosting birthday parties and special events in the dance hall.
The day the music died
Those good times came to a sudden halt in 2010, when the city closed it after announcing there were numerous code violations inside the building.
The code violation notices shocked then-owners Gilbert and Mary Garcia, who lacked the money to correct the problems. The Garcias, along with friends, family, and patrons of Lerma’s instead pleaded with the city to save the venue.
The city eventually designated Lerma’s a historic landmark, and the bar wound up on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 — but that was not enough to stave off the threat of demolition of the building.
The mere notion of losing Lerma’s to history had become a symbol of residents’ growing worries about gentrification on the West Side and the inability to preserve pieces of neighborhood cultural history.
Let the band play on
However, those same neighbors have come to Lerma’s rescue. Community members, aided by local advocacy groups, raised money and awareness in hopes of saving, restoring, and reopening the dance hall. Together, supporters formed Save Lerma’s Coalition, which raises funds to preserve the venerable venue and help keep the property clean.
Advocates for Lerma’s also worked to secure in-kind architectural services from Community Design Studio, received a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to pay for a detailed structural engineering report on the building, and got pro bono business consulting assistance from the Westside Development Corp.
The local Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice took ownership of the building and obtained a total of $1 million from the city and Bexar County to advance the goal of repairing and modernizing the structure. It also collected aid through monetary donations and in-kind services.
Meanwhile, community members were surveyed about what kind of neighborhood needs they thought could be met by reviving Lerma’s.
In spite of Gilbert Garcia’s death in 2016 and other setbacks over the last few years, the community’s efforts have paid off. Ground was broken in July on a $2.2 million restoration project that is expected to take less than one year to finish, though fundraising efforts are still ongoing.
Assuming funding (and building) continues, Lerma’s Nite Club will be new again, hosting performances of conjunto, Chicano blues and jazz, and African-American jazz, among other genres.
The club will also offer day dances and be available for private events such as community activities and family celebrations. Other parts of the soon-to-be-restored venue include a recording studio, room for multimedia exhibits, and a community radio station. Organizers also are looking at Conjunto Heritage Taller moving its programming into the building. The county is mulling setting up one of its BiblioTech digital libraries there, too.
Whatever shows up at the revived Lerma’s Nite Club and surrounding spaces, it no doubt will advance education and arts on the West Side.
And the sweet musical sounds of the West Side will play on.