Cameron County turning historic building into service center

Old San Benito Bank & Trust to house tax office, more

SAN BENITO — For 110 years, the San Benito Bank & Trust building’s golden dome has glistened over tall grand arches from the corner of Sam Houston Boulevard and Robertson Street.

Next to rows of empty downtown storefronts, the sprawling two-story Spanish-style building has stood vacant for years, a monument to the city’s heyday as northern Cameron County’s commercial hub.

Now, county officials are planning to turn it into a service center housing the tax assessor-collector’s satellite branch and other offices.

“We’re very optimistic about the capability the building has to provide satellite services to San Benito,” Pete Sepulveda, the county’s administrator, said. “It’s a huge building so it really gives the county a lot of options.”

At City Hall, officials are counting on the service center to generate traffic to drive new business into downtown shops.

“The city of San Benito welcomes the Cameron County Tax Office and is excited that the residents of our community and surrounding area will be able to utilize this office once open,” city spokesman David Favila stated. “We also welcome other residents from the county to our city and encourage them to spend some time visiting our businesses and amenities while they are conducting business at the tax office.”

Planning for service center

In November, county commissioners purchased the historic building along with an adjacent drive-thru bank office for $500,000, Tony Yzaguirre, the county’s tax assessor-collector, said.

“It was an opportunity we couldn’t pass by,” said Yzaguirre, who helped arrange the purchase after searching for a site to replace the county’s old Williams Road tax office, which the area has outgrown. “I feel it was a good deal.”

Across the street from the old bank building’s tall brassy domes, Yzaguirre is planning to open a five-lane drive-thru tax office next month to better safeguard taxpayers from the coronavirus.

The former San Benito Bank and Trust building located at 109 S. Sam Houston was recently purchased by Cameron County. The building will house the Cameron County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office which will utilize the drive through lanes located across the street for residents to pay their taxes. The main building will house the Justice of the Peace offices, Tax Office and the Constable’s Office. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

“We’re concentrating on the drive-thru windows,” he said. “I’m always thinking of ideas, thinking outside the box.”

Meanwhile, officials are planning to remodel the old bank building to make room for offices expected to include the county clerk’s satellite office, a constable’s office, justices of the peace offices and others, Yzaguirre said.

“It’s going to be a one-stop shop,” he said. “It’s ideal. It’s going to be a service-oriented building for everyone in San Benito. It will be unique to have the tax assessor, constables, JPs and county clerk all in one building.”

Officials don’t have a timetable for the office building’s opening, Sepulveda said.

Historic building

The iconic building helps tell the story behind the city’s past as northern Cameron County’s commercial center.

“I took a tour and I said, ‘Wow,’” Yzaguirre said. “Its architecture is incredible. I didn’t realize the construction, the antique doors.”

In 1911, brothers Scott and Alba Heywood built the Spanish colonial revival building at 198 S. Sam Houston Blvd.

Soon, the bank’s vaults would hold riches spawned from the area’s legacy as the county’s agricultural hub.

High along its roofline, the building’s magnificent dome rises over the downtown area.

On its second floor, the bank set up its offices.

By 1914, the building’s second floor housed the San Benito library.

In 1980, the Texas Historical Commission placed a historical marker on the building.

For more than 20 years, the building’s changed hands.

By 1998, Coastal Bancorp had purchased the bank.

Then, Coastal sold the bank to Hibernia Corp.

Later, Capital One purchased the bank, closing the building about 10 years ago.

“It’s been vacant for many, many years,” Yzaguirre said. “Imagine it fixed up to its original condition. It’s going to be super.”

fdelvalle@valleystar.com