Lerma's Nite Club


By: Alejandro Wolbert Pérez

Type: General Entry

Published: June 29, 2022

Updated: June 29, 2022


Fans of accordion-based conjunto music patronized Lerma’s Nite Club in San Antonio for more than sixty years, from when it first opened its doors after World War II until the night of its closure in 2010. Lerma’s popularity contributed to its longevity and earned it the distinction of one of the longest continually-running conjunto dance halls and night clubs in Texas. The club is regarded as a cultural icon.

Lerma’s Nite Club anchored the southernmost side of a five-unit, 10,302-square-foot commercial building located at 1602–1612 North Zarzamora Street, in San Antonio’s predominantly Mexican American West Side. Records from approximately 1942 indicate the purchase of the parcel of land by the Maryland-based American Service Company. In 1946 the American Service Company sold the property for $8,000. to Theodore (Ted) Hong Wu, a prominent Chinese American businessman, who then split interest in the property with five other investors from San Antonio’s Chinese American community—Lim S. Hong, Charlie She Jew, Huey Soon, Louis On, and Louie Lin.

Construction most likely occurred between 1946 and 1948, as Lerma’s (then called El Sombrero) first appeared in city directories in 1948. The building showcases many aspects of late Art Moderne design popular at the time, including its streamlined shape, with its rounded corners, smooth walls, flat roof, and octagonal windows. Color photographs dating from the 1980s show the building painted seafoam green with red accents; earlier black and white photographs of the building indicate a similar monocolored scheme.

Ownership of the building changed hands several times during its first forty years. Wu and his investment consortium became indebted to the Great Southern Life Insurance Company and sold the property to Nathan and Elizabeth Karin in order to clear their debt. The property later transferred to Marjorie Freedman and Doris Sideman and then to Morris Wise. The estate of Morris Wise sold the property to Mary and Gilbert Garcia in 1988, and it remained in their name for more than three decades. Following the closure, the Garcias transferred ownership to the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, a community-based cultural arts organization.

The building’s earliest tenants included dry cleaning and laundry facilities, a variety store, bakery, meat market, and other businesses. El Sombrero Nite Club, catering to a clientele fond of Mexican-origin norteña music, opened in the largest of the building’s five units. In 1951 Pablo Lerma took over El Sombrero’s lease, turned it into a conjunto-focused live music venue, and eventually renamed it Lerma’s Nite Club. Prior to moving into the unit at 1612 N. Zarzamora, Lerma had operated a bar on the 900 block of Zarzamora called Lerma’s Place; little else is known about this venue, other than its appearance in a city directory from 1948.

Pablo Lerma’s son Armando took over operations of Lerma’s Nite Club in 1971; in 1981, following his retirement, Mary and Gilbert Garcia assumed the club’s lease. Lovers of conjunto music, the Garcias were longtime family friends of the Lermas, and had agreed to retain the name of Lerma’s for the business. In 1988, after the death of the building’s owner, the Garcias used their retirement savings in order to purchase the structure housing Lerma’s. They owned and managed Lerma’s until the building’s closure in 2010. Gilbert Garcia, a saxophonist, taxi driver, and Vietnam veteran, passed away in 2016.

With a capacity of approximately 160, Lerma’s hosted an array of conjunto musicians. The list of performers who graced Lerma’s modest stage reads like a “who’s who” of conjunto music, including artists whose influence revolutionized the genre and who were eventually inducted into the Conjunto Hall of Fame and the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame, as well as journeyman musicians, emerging talent, and students performing in front of an audience for the very first time. Performers included Valerio Longoria, Tony de la Rosa, Lydia Mendoza, Ruben Naranjo, Esteban “El Parche” Jordan, Ruben Vela, Santiago Jiménez, Sr., and his sons, Flaco Jiménez and Santiago Jiménez, Jr., and many others. Lerma’s became known for its tardeadas, Sunday afternoon dances. Called “El Baile del Taconazo,” these were broadcast live on the radio. During conjunto’s peak, some of the more popular conjunto nite clubs in San Antonio had a house band. Luis Gonzáles (also González) y su Conjunto played at Lerma’s.

Lerma’s appeared in scenes in the major motion picture Selena (1997), about the late Tejana singer. Initially commissioned for the film, the Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl mural that sat behind the stage became a fixture of the club. Reminiscent of Jesús Helguera’s famous painting, the image of a plumed warrior and Aztec princess is a bit of colorful flair in the humbly decorated interior. Lerma’s checkerboard dance floor, red lighting, and famed mural are all also visible in indie band Girl in a Coma’s 2007 video for their song “Clumsy Sky.”

On July 6, 2010, the city of San Antonio’s Dangerous Premises Unit, acting on complaints stemming from unsafe conditions at the building’s dry cleaning tenant, ordered the evacuation of the premises and effectively shut down all operations at Lerma’s. The electrical, mechanical, and plumbing code violations stemming from the dry cleaners affected the entire building and presented a demonstrable fire hazard. Further investigation found the building’s roof to be unstable. The Dangerous Premises Unit reported their findings to the Dangerous Structures Determination Board (DSDB). A simple majority vote of the four-member board would decide whether or not the building would be demolished. The building’s owners, Mary and Gilbert Garcia, had two weeks to prepare for their hearing before the DSDB. If the DSDB ruled against them, demolition could take place as soon as twenty-four hours to thirty days following the decision.

Under the moniker of Save Lerma’s, a coalition of community members—including conjunto aficionados, preservationists, the Westside Development Corporation, and cultural activists—began a campaign to prevent the destruction of Lerma’s. Together with the Garcias, coalition members presented their case to the DSDB and eventually staved off demolition. On September 15, 2010, the San Antonio Historic Design and Review Commission recommended designating the entire building as a historic landmark. On October 21, 2010, San Antonio’s city council approved the landmark designation for the building. Lerma’s was added to the National Register of Historic Places on March 21, 2011. In 2014 Preservation Texas included Lerma’s on its list of Texas’s Most Endangered Places, further underscoring the importance of the building as a site of cultural and historical importance.

The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center purchased the building from the Garcias for $25,000 and agreed to pay the outstanding taxes owned. On July 15, 2019, Esperanza held a groundbreaking ceremony on the long-awaited $2.2 million restoration project. Repairs included bracing the building’s walls, reinforcing the foundation, and replacing its roof, along with general improvements in and outside the structure.

San Antonio Light, May 26, 1985. Gregory Smith and Susana Segura, “Lerma’s Nite Club, San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas,” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2011 (https://atlas.thc.state.tx.us/NR/pdfs/11000135/11000135.pdf), accessed January 18, 2022.

Categories:
  • Music
  • Genres (Conjunto, Tejano, and Border)
  • Venues
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
Places:
  • Central Texas
  • San Antonio

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Alejandro Wolbert Pérez, “Lerma's Nite Club,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/lermas-nite-club.

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June 29, 2022
June 29, 2022

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