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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Historic, long-empty San Antonio building opens for business

John Herrmann runs San Antonio Antiques in the building built by his father that was once home to his Saf-T-Gas business. The recently restored brick building is now home to a health foods store, a home decor shop and more.
Published Sep. 4, 2014

SAN ANTONIO

For more than 30 years, the two-story red brick building on Curley Street sat empty. It's not that people weren't interested. A few times a week, someone would stop to peer in the windows, maybe rattle the doorknob, then venture next door to Jack Boyle's pottery shop to inquire if it was for sale or rent. It happened so often, in fact, that John Herrmann posted a sign on his late father's storefront asking folks not to bother the potter.

Then along came G. Morgan Becker, 67. He had been teaching martial arts in an old house overlooking Lake Jovita for 31 years. When Saint Leo University purchased the property, he needed to find a new home for the Lake House Martial Arts School. He was willing to rent part of the Curley Street building, though it was in disrepair.

"It looked like the walls had been kicked in, and the floors were so bad that in some parts you could see from the second floor down to the first floor."

Even so, he saw potential.

• • •

Joe Herrmann was a man about town, an entrepreneur and a devout Catholic with a giving spirit. He was a paper boy before opening his first business, the Jovita Radio Store, in 1927. He built his first building when he was 36 and dabbled in city and county politics, served in various civic organizations, and helped establish the Pioneer Florida Museum and county fair board. After he died, the city named a street after him.

Herrmann built the red brick building on Curley Street in 1946 to house his Saf-T-Gas company. It was a stone's throw from the house he helped his father build and where he and his wife, Rose, raised nine children.

Appliances were sold on the first floor, and furniture was upstairs in a space that included his office and the Blue Flame Room. There, the Herrmanns hosted parties, colored eggs for the annual Easter hunt and opened it up to locals to use for their own family gatherings.

"Daddy was a good man and a savvy businessman," John Herrmann, 64, said. "He never charged anyone to use that room, but they would all have to walk by those brand-new appliances to go upstairs."

Over the years, the adjacent spaces housed various startups: a motorcycle repair shop, a survey company, a barbershop and the San Antonio Citizens Federal Credit Union. When Saint Leo College went coed, it served as a dormitory for female students. In the 1970s, it was home to the San Antonio Boys Village, a former halfway house for troubled teens.

Then for a while, nothing.

• • •

A year of renovations has breathed new life into the 5,600-square-foot "Joe Herrmann Building." Refurbishment included the installation of new windows, ceilings, plumbing, air-conditioning and electrical wiring. Walls were rebuilt, floors were refinished and a stairway rerouted.

"We have had people walk up into the school and their jaws drop and their eyes open wide," Becker said. "They can't believe how beautiful the space is."

A new 8-foot-wide balcony overlooks Curley Street with a sign heralding the newly minted South San Antonio Arts and Antiques District — SoSA for short — which includes the Herrmann building's new tenants and the well-established San Antonio Pottery.

A grand opening is scheduled for Saturday, but word got around that the building was already open for business.

"With these businesses opening up, I've gotten more foot traffic than I regularly do in the busier season," Boyle said.

John Herrmann, former co-owner of Art Moderne Antiques in Ybor City, had been selling wares at antique shows throughout the country. He came off the road to open San Antonio Antiques in his father's old store.

"It's really cool being here," Herrmann said, recalling childhood days playing in the giant appliance boxes on the terrazzo floor that still bears the Saf-T-Gas insignia.

His shop is a thoughtful display of old, newer and downright odd stuff: stained glass windows, lampshades, vases, bookends, paintings, cypress furniture and chandeliers from the Moon Lake Lodge, a 100-year-old repurposed press of some sort, gold leather chairs circa the 1950s, the innards of an upright piano hanging on the wall, and a carpet handbag manufactured by the Boyde Purse Co. in Athens, Tenn., with a label that states it is made of "100% undetermined fibers."

"These are what I call 'appointments' — things that make your house your home," Herrmann said.

A Healthy Convenience took the place of the old credit union, offering an assortment of organic and local produce, healthy snacks, bulk and Amish goods, organic wine and smoothies made to order.

"I had been looking for a place and someone brought this to my attention," said proprietor Teresa Palmer, 55, who uses the old bank vault as a wine cellar. "When I saw the vault, I said, 'This is it.' I just had the feeling when I walked in that this was my place."

Staci Lewis White, owner of the Wired Bird, offers her own eclectic mix of repurposed home decor and jewelry, shabby-chic items, organic soaps, and signs, which she crafted from old wood, bearing inspirational messages.

"The sign says we're open until 4 (p.m.) but sometimes we don't get out until 6 with all the customers coming in," White said. "I don't know if it's the newness or if it has something to do with the Herrmanns. Every day there are at least two or three of them stopping by."

Others, like Rita Groves, 64, of Wesley Chapel, said she just had to turn the car around while driving north on Curley Street.

"I've been coming by here for 20 years and hoping someone would do something nice with this building," Groves said as she perused the goods at A Healthy Convenience. "I'm really excited about this. I like the direction San Antonio is going. I'll definitely be back."

Contact Michele Miller at mmiller@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6251. Follow @mimichele525.

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