National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

National Register of Historic Places Program:
Hispanic Heritage Month
Lerma's Nite Club, Bexar County, Texas

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.

 

photo
Lerma's Nite Club
Photograph courtesy of the Texas State Historic Preservation Office

Michelle Koidin Jaffee from Texas Public Radio News reported on the closing of Lerma’s Nite Club, which stood for many years as the heart of conjunto music in the city of San Antonio, Texas.

“We’re like in dark because people, they love to party. You know, they’re looking for something, and Lerma’s is closed,” Hector Romero Alanis, a city bus driver who was a regular at Lerma’s, told Jaffe. “In Spanish we call it ‘luto,’ you know, because it’s like somebody passed on and there’s no place to go anymore. It was el corazon de Tejas.”

Conjunto music is a unique Texas fusion of German and Czech accordion sounds with the Mexican ranchera played by migrating farm workers in the fields of Texas. Conjunto music evolved while Tejano migrant workers traveled from crop to crop in communication with strong German and Czech influences entertaining their families and friends. The polka sounds caught their attention and they soon began adapting the use of the accordion with their own native bajo sexton that evolved in Mexico. For people who love to dance, conjunto music runs the gamut of dance styles; polkas, waltzes, redobas, doble paso (two-step), boleros, mambo, huapango, cumbia and mazurka.  For those that love variety of sound in music, there’s also conjunto country, a synthesis of blues, rock, jazz, salsa, Latin jazz, Cajun zydeco conjunto, meringue and reggae. The Spanish word “conjunto” means “group,” and refers to both a musical style and the band that performs it.

Lerma’s Nite Club is the southernmost unit of a five-part commercial block built circa 1948 at 1612 North Zarzamora Street on the west side of San Antonio, Texas. On July 6, 2010, the city’s Dangerous Premises Unit (DPU) found several violations at the dry cleaning establishment at the north end of the building, and the electrical, mechanical and plumbing violations soon extended to the remainder of the building and other units, including Lerma’s Nite Club. The DPU reports their findings to the Dangerous Structure Determination Board (DSDB), which has the power to demolish private property from 24 hours to 30 days after a simple majority vote. 

photo Owner Gilbert Garcia (left) and members of the Save Lerma's Coalition stand in front of the conjunto music venue, Lerma's Nite Club, on San Antonio's Westside. Part of National Trust for Historic Preservation - This Place Matters Community Challenge

Building owners Mary and Gilbert Garcia made a presentation to the DSDB on July 26, 2010.  Twenty-eight supporters of the building’s preservation appeared at the meeting, with 20 speakers requesting an extension.  The DSDB granted a 60-day extension, and a group of community organizers banded together and formed the Save Lerma’s coalition.  The group is currently conducting a general clean-up of the property and organizing community fundraisers. The coalition has received in-kind architectural services from Community Design Studios, as well as a grant for a more detailed structural engineers report from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  The Westside Development Corporation is providing pro-bono business consulting services.

The building that houses Lerma’s Nite Club is a postwar one-part commercial block in the historically Hispanic West Side neighborhood of San Antonio. Likely constructed in 1948 and built of unreinforced concrete masonry units, its style picks up on common Art Moderne characteristics (namely the curved corners and octagonal window) that were popular in commercial design prior to World War II.  The earliest known tenants of the building included Huey’s Variety Store, the San Antonio Baking Company, and Lakeview Cleaners. By 1951, El Sombrero Nite Club is listed as occupying the space that would eventually become Lerma’s Nite Club, operated by Pablo Lerma. The property continued to change hands until 1988, when the current owners, Gilbert C. Garcia and his wife, Mary, purchased the property. Through the 1950s, Lerma’s was one of a small number of documented commercial music venues in San Antonio that regularly booked conjunto artists.

The San Antonio Historic Design and review Commission recommended designation of the entire Lerma’s Nite Club building as a San Antonio historic landmark on September 15, 2010.  On October 21, 2010, the San Antonio City Council unanimously approved city landmark designation for the building. The designation wouldn’t prevent the city’s Dangerous Structure Determination Board from demolishing it, but the designation demonstrates the city leadership’s willingness to preserve the property. In addition, Lenora’s Nite Club was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on March 21, 2011.

photo
Lerma's Nite Club
Photograph courtesy of the Texas State Historic Preservation Office

Lerma’s represents a place where conjunto music was preformed for decades. Conjunto music has always been anchored by the accordion, and is largely considered to be music for dancing. Today in the United States and Mexico, a conjunto band is composed of four main instruments: a button accordion, a bajo sexton (a twelve-string guitar), a bass, and a drum kit. Conjunto is a melding of musical styles across several cultures, and retains the influence of German and Eastern European settlers who brought their accordions-along with song structures such as waltzes and polkas-to the region in the 19th-century. 

Throughout the 20th-century, conjunto was the music of working class Tejanos, from rural agricultural laborers in small towns, to blue collar tradesmen in Texas’ large cities. Ethnomusicologist Manuel Peňa, in Música Tejano, states the music itself originated in the 1870s, but the “golden era” of conjunto is generally regarded as the post World War II period through about 1970, and the final era represents a period of decline and rebirth of the musical form through the present day. Peňa considers the period between 1935 and 1960 ads the time when conjunto became identified as a “powerful symbol among the Texas-Mexican working class.”

Up until the building was vacated in the summer of 2010, by order of the city of San Antonio, Lerma’s Nite Club continued to be home to dancing couples and fans of conjunto.  Cover charges helped to maintain a safe and friendly atmosphere, and prevented the sorts of problems associated with other bars in the neighborhood. Besides continued use as a conjunto venue, the nightclub had more recently hosted events significant to the local community.  A portion of the movie “Selena” was filmed inside Lerma’s Nite Club in the mid-1990s. The venue is easily recognized in the film’s exterior shots, as well as the interior scene featuring the nightclub’s Aztec-themed “Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl” mural which still decorates the wall behind the stage.  In 2007, the San Antonio female rock trio Girl in a Coma filmed their “Clumsy Sky” video inside Lerma’s.


Written by Gregory Smith, National Register Coordinator for the Texas Historical Commission, with Susana Segura. Compiled with additional information by Rustin Quaide, National Register of Historic Places, and edited by Blaise Farina, National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers. 

Jaffee, Michelle Koidin “Historic Preservation in San Antonio: Lerma's Night Club.” Texas Public Radio, 13 Sept. 2011, <http://www.tpr.org/news/2011/08/news1108051.html <
Manuel H Peňa, The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working Class Music (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985),
Gregory Smith and Susana Segura, Lerma’s Nite Club NRHP Nomination, Texas Historical Commission, January 28, 2011.  The majority of the information presented here is taken, in many cases verbatim, from this document.
Zarazua, Jeorge. “Conjunto Club is labeled Historic.” San Antonio Express-News, Sept. 17, 2010.
Manuel H Peňa, Música Tejan: The Cultural economy of Artistic Transformation. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999, pages 86-94

Learn More:

Save Lerma's Website:
http://www.savelermas.org/

Save Lerma's Facebook Page:
http://www.facebook.com/lermasniteclub

Lerma's Youtube video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJEEOnYUf3w

National Trust for Historic Preservation - This Place Matters Community Challenge:
http://www.preservationnation.org/take-action/this-place-matters/community-challenge/places/san-antonio-conservation.html

Read full file

National Register Hispanic Heritage Month