SAN BENITO — When Enriqueta Ramos closes her eyes, she’s dancing in her white wedding gown, its long embroidered train brushing across the ballroom of a grand hotel.

On Jan. 3, 1951, she hosted her wedding reception at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel.

“For me, it’s a part of my history,” Ramos, 89, said Friday.

Today, the South Texas landmark stands like a boarded-up monument to San Benito’s glory days as northern Cameron County’s commercial hub.

But it’s filled with memories.

“Getting into a formal dress with a corsage, going there and dancing, to me was a dream,” Ramos, a retired university professor, said as she recalled her junior and senior proms. “Everybody dreams — but everybody can’t have that.”

In the city’s heyday, the grand hotel stood as the area’s social capital, marking an era when land barons courted northern businessmen who helped transform the city into an agricultural mecca.

For decades, area leaders have talked about taking on one of the city’s biggest renovation projects.

Now, Mayor Rick Guerra’s planning to try to renovate the three-story building opened in 1927 after local businessmen pooled their money to fund its construction.

“It’s a landmark,” he said. “There are a lot of memories for people who remember the Stonewall Jackson. I want to keep those memories.”

Boards cover one of the entryways Wednesday at the former Stonewall Jackson Hotel. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Planning the project

Eight years after it purchased the building, the San Benito Housing Authority is requesting proposals from developers as part of plans to apply for federal tax credits to help fund the renovation project estimated to cost as much as $7 million.

“Everything’s going to be renovated,” Ben Cortez, the agency’s chairman, said. “The idea is to renovate it and try to keep it as close as we can to what it was back then.”

Ninety-two years after it opened, the architectural firm Megamorphosis Design’s study found the building’s structure remains sound, David Cortez, the agency’s community development coordinator, said.

“There are some columns or piers that could need some repair but the structure is very good for its age,” he said, referring to the firm’s 2019 study.

As part of its study, the firm estimated it would cost $6 million to $7 million to renovate the building, he said.

“Bringing it back to life — it’s a big job,” he said.

As part of the project, the agency would work with a developer, applying to the Texas Department of Community Affairs for federal tax credits aimed at funding historical renovations along with affordable housing developments, David Cortez said.

Under the agency’s preliminary plans, the building’s first floor would feature a restaurant and retail spaces while the project would likely turn its second and third floors into affordable housing units, he said.

“You’re looking at a complete renovation, gutting it and bringing it up to current standards,” he said. “We’re going to keep as much of the original materials that we can — and some of that might have to created.”

San Benito Housing Authority Commissioner Ben Cortez and maintenance supervisor Juan Garcia walk through the courtyard that formerly hosted weddings, quinceañeras and other community events Wednesday at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

New hope

Decades after stepping into the hotel, Ramos still feels the Stonewall Jackson’s splendor.

“That place was so beautiful,” she said. “It was elegant. It had a nice ballroom. They had a very beautiful patio that was filled when we had dancing. Outside, there was a fountain. They loved gathering there. Everyone loved it. I loved it.”

Decades after the Stonewall Jackson fell into disrepair, the housing authority paid $220,000 for the building after the city condemned it.

For years, the agency failed to find a buyer for one of the city’s greatest landmarks.

Now, there’s hope the Stonewall Jackson might come back to life.

“When I found out they’re trying to do something with it, I thanked God,” Ramos said, referring to the agency’s renovation plans. “We’ve got to save that building.”

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