Gaby Rodriguez (center) leads an introduction to flamenco class for children at the Berta Almaguer Dance Studio. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

The Berta Almaguer Dance Studio will be torn down and rebuilt as a new recreation center, more than 60 years after the structure was first designed as a local fishermen’s club.

The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) voted Wednesday to demolish the studio in the Woodlawn Lake and Park Historic District to build new dance studio space along with community-use spaces. Because the Berta Almaguer Dance Studio lies within a historic district, it puts it within HDRC’s authority.

Melissa Douglas of Douglas Architects, the firm behind the new center’s design, said the foundation of the current building made it unsalvageable and restoring it too expensive.

“The slab is inadequate,” she said. “It’s going to continue to fail, and it will consume the majority of our construction budget.”

The new design puts two dance studios, classroom space, and an outdoor yoga patio on nearly 10,000 square feet. The current structure is 4,800 square feet.

HDRC instructed architects to keep elements of the current dance studio in the new design, as well as the Berta Almaguer name on the building. Board member Scott Carpenter said he appreciated how the plan accomplishes that.

“I think it’s very sympathetic to the memory of the historic building that’s there on the site,” he said. “I think it is appropriately recalling [the original] but not creating a mimicry or replica or what was there before.”

The commission’s Design Review Committee found the studio has historic significance after a January meeting with architects, and the City’s Office of Historic Preservation recently determined it was eligible for landmark designation.

But historic significance does not automatically save it from demolition, said Ron Bauml, property restoration manager at the San Antonio Conservation Society. The society advocated to save the existing studio structure and build new additions to serve as community space at Woodlawn Lake Park.

“It’s got a layer of historic protection so to speak,” Bauml said. “Individual designation is another layer of historic protection. … [But] I guess you could … get permission for demolition even if it is a landmark or even in a historic district.”

The new community center was originally approved as part of the 2017 bond.

Paul Berry, spokesman for the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements (TCI) Department, said the department’s engineers found enough concerns to recommend demolition so the new community center would meet “today’s standards.”

“We understand there is concern about this from a historical perspective,” Berry said. “If [HDRC] determines what our engineers say is not valid, then we’ll go back to the drawing board. Our job in project delivery is the deliver projects the voters voted on and do them the best way possible.”

Parks Director Xavier Urrutia said the majority of the people who attended public meetings regarding the dance studio’s future were in favor of demolishing the structure for a better park experience and dance facilities. Parks and Recreation owns and operates Berta Almaguer Dance Studio.

TCI engineers determined the studio’s foundation was built for residential use, not for public building use, Berry said.

“Over the years, that poor foundation has led to cracks in the walls, bending beams, and some pillars that are leaning,” Berry said. “And in 1988, they tried to basically stop that stuff and maybe fix it. But it was a Band-Aid and that damage still continues.”

Vincent Michael, executive director of the San Antonio Conservation Society, scoffed at the idea that cracks would be enough to warrant demolition of a building.

“We asked for a real structural analysis of it, as opposed to ‘there looks like there are some cracks and some leaking,’” he said.

“I am not a young person and that floor was just fine when I danced on it many moons ago,” Conservation Society President Patty Zaiontz added.

Urrutia said the Parks Department decided the plan is the most efficient way to give the public an upgraded space without detracting from the green space of Woodlawn Lake Park.

“Constructing a new dance studio with an additional community center component is practical in that it allows for the dance program to have a new and expanded facility in the same location the program has historically has been offered,” Urrutia said in an email. “It is prudent financially in that it allows these funds to construct a new, larger state of the art dance studio with additional space for more instruction, but also adds a community center component to maximize the use of the building when dance classes are not occurring.”

The City is putting $5 million toward the Woodlawn Lake Park community center, while $1.5 million came from a Texas Parks and Wildlife grant, for a total of $6.5 million. Most of that will go toward the new center, but some will help replace the walking trail through Woodlawn Lake Park.

Berta Almaguer Dance Studio still offers many dance classes, including flamenco, jazz, modern, ballet, and folklorico. According to the studio’s website, the studio honors the musician and dance teacher who taught dance classes through the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department from 1934 to 1970. The studio was formally named for Berta Almaguer in 1984.

During construction, the dance program will be moved temporarily to the Enrique Barrera Community Fitness Center, near Nelson Wolff Stadium on the West Side, Urrutia said. This is Urrutia’s last big project before moving on to Alamo Colleges, where he will serve as chief of staff to Chancellor Mike Flores.

“We didn’t take it lightly,” Urrutia said. “We’re always sensitive about our park features, but we knew was something that needed to occur. As one of my last actions as parks director, to bring this to HDRC and have them approve it speaks volumes to the program and the role recreation plays in our community.”

Douglas estimated that after finalizing designs and finishing construction, the new Woodlawn Lake Park center could open in 2021.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.