Community looks to historic San Juan Hotel’s difficult past when considering its future

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Shades of washed out yellow of the architectural design are seen at the San Juan Hotel on Thursday, May 23, 2024, in San Juan. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

The future of San Juan Hotel remains up in the air as city officials ponder all available options for the historic building.

It is the hotel’s past, however, that is driving community members to speak out against any plans that may include the building’s demolition.

The San Juan Hotel, which sits on 125 West 5th Street facing Business 83, has served citizens and visitors of the Rio Grande Valley for decades. While its rooms remain bare, yet covered in graffiti and broken glass, it is filled with a history that tells the story of not only San Juan, but the greater South Texas Region.

The original two-story frame structure was erected in 1909, serving as the area’s first available lodging as the town itself was being established.

The structure that stands today was built in 1919 as a location for social gatherings, as well as to meet the need for the growing community as the population boomed to 1,203 in 1920, according to census data.

The growth in the community was due in large part to the establishment of the western branch of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railroad that now connected the region to the rest of the country ran across from where the hotel is located.

Through its decades-long history, and through countless owners, the building remains a source for stories and memories since its doors closed for a final time.

While much of the history of the hotel has been passed down through word of mouth, there are newspaper articles spread throughout much of the 20th Century that offer glimpses into the events that transpired at the San Juan Hotel.

One of those stories from July 12, 1950 details an incident in which one of the San Juan Hotel owners, Edna Nelson, and a guest were shot and killed in the hotel lobby. Others depict fires that occurred at the hotel on at least two separate occasions.

One of the many rooms inside the San Juan Hotel is seen on Thursday, May 23, 2024, in San Juan. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Another source is a narrative written by David Sigle, who partnered with his father, Glenn, in purchasing the hotel on Nov. 23, 1981 and restoring it for its reopening on Nov. 10, 1983.

David’s narrative was written and submitted to the Texas Historical Commission during the application process for a building marker, which has since gone missing. A separate marker remains displaying the history of Tom Mayfield, the infamous lawman who spent his last years as a resident at the San Juan Hotel.

“The (missing) marker is kind of the least of the hotel’s concerns,” Gabriel Ozuna said.

Ozuna is the preservation chair for the Hidalgo County Historical Commission, and he is one of the many community members who have vocally opposed the demolition of the historic hotel.

As a preservationist, Ozuna maintains a particular interest in the San Juan Hotel and many other historical sites throughout Hidalgo County.

“A lot of these stories weren’t documented in the official record,” Ozuna said. “It’s probably going to take a good amount of further academic research and attention to get the full story out, which is another reason why having the hotel is important as a conversation piece.”

A view from the inside of the dilapidated kitchen ceiling of a chimney top at the San Juan Hotel on Thursday, May 23, 2024, in San Juan. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Dr. Stephanie Alvarez, a professor of Mexican-American studies at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, has devoted years of research to uncovering the stories hidden within the hotel’s concrete walls — stories that she says tell of a darker time for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the area.

“From a community standpoint, that hotel was really to serve white folks because it is on the south side of the tracks,” Alvarez explained. “Prior to the Chicano Movement, the south side of the tracks was reserved only for white people, almost exclusively. In fact, if Mexicans or Mexican-Americans were found on the south side of the tracks, they would be severely punished physically, and sometimes with death.”

She explained that Tom Mayfield, whose name is celebrated with a historical marker in front of the hotel, was responsible for a large percentage of the mistreatment faced by the Hispanic community during his time serving as a Texas Ranger, a state trooper and police chief of Pharr.

“As the one of the prominent Texas Rangers at the time, he would have been the one that is largely responsible for any lynchings by the Texas Rangers in front of that hotel,” Alvarez said.

Tom Mayfield is seen in this undated photo. (Monitor archives)

She went on to explain that in his later years as a resident of the hotel, Mayfield was known to display artifacts that he collected throughout his years in law enforcement.

“It’s also known that when he received visitors at the hotel, he would display what he called his memorabilia, which included items that he took from victims,” she said.

A newspaper clipping from Nov. 25, 1966 announcing Mayfield’s death makes mention of those items.

“The collection consists of hundreds of guns, from homemade to the latest in firearms,” the article read. “Most of which he has taken from armed men. Knives, swords, billy clubs, whips and various other weapons are prominently (sic) displayed in special wall cases around the walls of the bank.”

“I think it’s important for us to confront those historical moments that are very difficult and painful, and I think it’s important for the community to reclaim those sites so that they are used for the possibility of reconciliation,” Alvarez said. “That’s my feeling. It is bittersweet, right? It’s horrible. And at the same time, it’s a site for many possibilities for healing and learning.” Digital Content Manager Emily D’Gyves ​​contributed to this story.

To see more, check out staff photographer Delcia Lopez’s full photo gallery here:

Photo Gallery: The historic San Juan Hotel


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