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Posted: Saturday, March 6, 2010 12:00 am

Honky-tonk music flowed from a nearby saloon. A young teenager and her friends stood on Jackson Avenue across from the Empire State Building of the Rio Grande Valley, taking in the downtown scene.

America was at war with Japan and Germany. In Harlingen, the bar patrons on Jackson Avenue were taking musical potshots at Hitler.

“When Der Fuehrer says ‘we is de master race,’ ” the bar patrons would sing, “we heil, heil … right in Der Fuehrer’s Face.”

That teenager, Patricia Williams Speer, turned 81 this year. She recalls spending a lot of her time working at her father’s Rio Grande Pharmacy, on the ground floor of the soaring Baxter Building.

The drug store boasted one of the city’s first soda fountains.

“My father had a lot of trouble with some of the girls we had working for us, because they’d give the soldiers free sodas,” said Speer, a bright smile accompanying her trip down memory lane.

When not working, Speer would watch patrons, including soldiers from Harlingen Army Air Field, come in and out of the pharmacy, and guess what each person bought.

“We didn’t have television back then,” Speer said.

Times have changed.

Empty buildings dot most of the block that was once one of Harlingen’s busiest. The nine-story building known today as Blaschka Tower has changed from the Valley’s tallest building to its loftiest derelict.

But after decades of decline, a prospective buyer is in place for what has been referred to as “Harlingen’s Skyscraper” as well as “the city’s biggest eyesore,” city officials and local business owners said.

Blaschka Tower is now mostly vacant, downtown officials said.

One or two tenants may still live there despite the seemingly poor conditions. Christmas lights dangled from a second story window last month. A woman who claimed to be the building’s security guard told a reporter that she and her husband live in the building.

For most of its time with its current owner, Wayne Blaschka, the tower has housed low-income apartments or has simply been vacant, downtown district officials said.

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In an August 2008 interview, Blaschka said the building was being used as his personal office space and for storage. He said he was leasing only two apartments on the second floor to people who had lived in the building for many years.

Windows on the top floor have shed their glass panes in recent years, leaving the exterior looking shabby.

It was always an ugly, skinny building, Speer said. But the attrition of the passing years has left it worse for the wear.

“I hate to see the building the way it is,” Speer said. “That building was a real landmark.”

Before Blaschka purchased it in 1988, the tower bore several names during its 81-year existence, including the Baxter Building and the McKelvey Building, Harlingen Historical Society member Norman Rozeff said.

“It was all doctors and lawyers,” Rozeff said of the building’s tenants during its heyday. “It was the place to have your office.”

The Rio Grande Pharmacy, owned by Thomas Reed Williams Sr., occupied the Baxter Building’s first floor from 1930 until 1960, his daughter said.

“The doctors and lawyers with offices in the building would come for sandwiches at lunch,” Speer said. “And the soldiers from the Gunnery School (at Harlingen Army Air Field) would come for tobacco and the soda fountain.”

A broken-down refrigerator with a dirty child’s doll occupies the area where the pharmacy’s prescription counters once stood. The elevators that once lifted visitors to the upper floors are now coated in dust, their doors obstructed by junk.

Building inspectors issued a warning to Blaschka back in 2008, asking him to remove debris found at the bottom of the staircase facing A Street, according to Code Enforcement records.

Trash could be found in that stairwell last month, but no other citations had been issued by Code Enforcement within the past two years, according to city records.

During the 1940s and ’50s, Williams would use the building in his advertising, his daughter said. Flyers and signs would state “Rio Grande Pharmacy located in the Valley’s Tallest Building.”

When Valley Baptist Health System opened what would become the city’s largest medical center in 1956, the high-priced doctors who had occupied the Baxter Building moved south to be closer to the hospital.

Speer said her dad moved his pharmacy after the building’s owner increased his rent by $100.

The city, as part of Harlingen 100, has been trying for the past two years to find a way to make the tower viable.

“It’s kind of the elephant in the room,” Downtown District Manger Cheryl LaBerge said. “It’s the city’s tallest building, and it’s been unoccupied.”

Blaschka, the owner, declined to comment for this article because he thought it might jeopardize the sale of the building. But in past interviews he has said the structure has much to offer.

The tower is 100 percent concrete, according to the real estate brochure, noting that it was erected at the same time as the Empire State Building.

“It’s built like a tank,” Blaschka said in the 2008 interview.

“It’s 100 percent concrete, the same type of construction as the Empire State Building. And they had a B-25 bomber fly into (the Empire State Building) in 1945 loaded with aviation fuel. And that didn’t do any structural damage to it at all.

“That’s why a concrete structure is the best you can have.”

Blaschka Tower’s floors, roof and all its beams are concrete. “The walls are 15 inches thick. This thing is built like you wouldn’t believe,” Blaschka said.

Not only is Blaschka Tower the tallest building in Harlingen, it’s also the only fallout shelter in the city, according to a real estate brochure published by an Austin-based agent.

“It was the only building in the city of Harlingen that was designated as a fallout shelter in the era of the ’50s,” Blaschka said in the earlier interview, referring to the Cold War nuclear threat.

The tower is so strong that it has withstood three hurricanes. When Hurricane Dolly stormed ashore in July 2008, the building sustained only minor damage, including some of the broken windows.

The former office building also survived the fierce hurricane of 1933, when residents sought refuge within its cement walls. And it came through 1967’s Hurricane Beulah, which spawned more than 100 tornadoes.

The Blaschka Tower features two second- generation Otis elevators and a rooftop that can be leased for broadband Internet providers, the brochure states.

Calls to the Century 21 Westbank Summit real estate agent listed on the brochure were not returned.

The brochure says the asking price for the approximately 40,000-square-foot building was $950,000.

Downtown District board member Bill DeBrooke said it would cost about $4 million to clean and inspect the inside of the building to make it inhabitable for business.

Grupo Ayusa, a Brownsville/Matamoros development company, has approached Blaschka and the city to purchase the building.

The group wants to rename it Centennial Tower, using the top two floors for its own office, downtown and company officials said.

Grupo Ayusa also plans to turn the first floor into a restaurant or café. The developer would lease the remaining floors as office space, according to city records.

In order to handle the parking, Grupo Ayusa is in discussion with the city to purchase or lease Lozano Park, directly across

from the building, according to city records. The potential sale of the park was discussed during an executive session at a Feb. 10 City Commission meeting.

The city could also reorganize the street parking to accommodate an increased demand, downtown officials said.

“My take on it is that we have too much vacant space already,” said Eric John Ziehe, a broker for commercial real estate agency NAI Rio Grande Valley. “We don’t have a shortage of space, so I don’t think there should be any public money invested in this.”

The downtown area has 85 percent occupancy, business officials said. Harlingen Economic Development Corporation does not plan to provide any financial assistance to the prospective developers of Blaschka Tower, EDC officials said.

High-end downtown office space in the Harlingen-Brownsville Metropolitan Statistical Area averages an annual lease price of $20 per square foot, according to a 2008 report by the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University.

Space in another multistory downtown Harlingen building, the Bank of America building, goes for $12 per square foot, according to the city’s Economic Development Council Web site.

The sale of Blaschka Tower could be completed as soon as April, sources close to the deal said.

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