Ex-Rio Grande City eatery could be cultural center

June 16, 2011 7:33:42 AM PDT
A dusty piano with broken keys sits in the corner, dirty and broken dishes remain on the counter near overturned furniture, and the roof is deteriorating. That description might fit a ghost town or a sunken ship, but instead it describes Cafe Mexico, a restaurant that opened in 1937 in downtown Rio Grande City.

The murals on the high-walled patio show history themselves.

Painted by Al Kernz, a relatively unknown artist who also has murals displayed in Roma, the murals show landscapes of the Southwest, pioneers, tropical settings and even Mexican comedian and actor Cantinflas.

"Everything was left like a shrine to my grandparents," said Mary De Ferreire, the granddaughter of the original owners, Jose and Maria Garza, who opened the restaurant on the corner of Farm-to-Market Road 755 and U.S. 83.

The front of the building, which contained the family dining room, the kitchen and the bar, originally was a family home. It was built in 1888. In 1937, Jose Garza added the walled-in patio and the upstairs where his family lived. The building has about 4,700 square feet of space.

Soldiers from nearby Fort Ringgold visited the restaurant to "drink beer and dance" with women until the fort closed in 1948, De Ferreire said. Live bands and orchestras often played at night, and Rio Grande City residents remember attending family weddings, quinceaneras and other celebrations in the cafe. But since 1991, when the last family member moved out, the building has sat unoccupied -- deteriorating. Thieves have stolen some of the expensive items inside, such as nice silverware and furniture.

"There is more destruction every time I come," said De Ferreire, while visiting the structure after six months of absence De Ferreire said she is struggling to restore the building in order to turn it into a cultural center to serve as a testament to her family and her hometown.

"Where do you start?" De Ferreire said.

The heavy tractor-trailers that drive on FM 755, which connects to U.S. 281, have damaged the building. The tractor-trailers that make the turn from U.S. 83 to FM 755 have hit the side of the building. The weight of the passing trucks has damaged the building's foundation.

De Ferreire said she was overjoyed to hear that the Texas Department of Transportation will realign the thoroughfare, diverting it away from downtown, eliminating problems with tractor-trailers for the restaurant. However, construction will not begin until 2013.

De Ferreire hopes for government money from the Texas Historical Commission, but building owners also generally are required to contribute their own money to the building. The amount of money an owner has to put in depends on the type of grant.

The Historical Commission, like many state agencies, also does not have much money to give out because of the poor economy.

Much of the grant money available to the Historical Commission for restoration projects comes from the Texas Preservation Trust Fund, an interest-earning pool of private and state money, but it hasn't increased in years, leaving no interest to give out in grants, said Debbie Head, a spokeswoman for the Historical Commission.

Rio Grande City is not new to restoring historic buildings. The city is part of the Texas Historical Commission's Main Street Program, which promotes restoring and investing in historic downtowns.

The Rio Grande City Main Street Program provides support for those looking to restore a historical building, said Bonny Amador, the director of the Main Street Program and the Rio Grande City Economic Development Council.

The Texas Historical Commission surveyed Rio Grande City and determined that there are 600 historical buildings in the area, Amador said. Cafe Mexico is included on that list. Others, such as the restored La Borde House Hotel, which was built by French settlers in the late 1800s, are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Main Street Program can give out $2,000 for façade improvements on historic buildings, but the owners must apply for larger grants and loans through the Historical Commission.

Some owners of the historic buildings have taken advantage of the façade improvement money and put their own money into their buildings, Amador said. Others solely use their own money and just take advice from the Main Street Program.

Bertha's Motel, for example, at 610 E. Second St., used the $2,000 for a complete remodel of the building including repainting the outside.

Those who wish to receive assistance from the program must own the building. Although the Cafe Mexico building is in De Ferreire's family, it was left to her aunts and mother when her grandparents died. De Ferreire would like to buy the building from them but she said it is too emotional for her aunts and mother to think of letting go of their parents' restaurant.

The approximately $60,000 yearly operating budget for the Main Street Program comes from the city's Economic Development Corporation, which is funded by the city's sales taxes. The city's more pressing matters mean it can't fund much building restoration, Mayor Ruben Villarreal said.

"Our main thrust is roads, water systems, sewer systems (and) parks," Villarreal said.

He acknowledged that building restoration is important and brings in tourism money to the city, but with the bad economy, the city government must work only on infrastructure and other projects that serve a larger number of people.

On a positive note for De Ferreire, government will step in to repave FM 755, also called Flores Street, which runs beside the cafe. TxDOT will change the street to northbound traffic only.

De Ferreire will keep working to restore the building, but until she can get more momentum, the murals and furniture will remain while the ceiling and walls continue to fall apart.

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