San Benito conjunto museum moving into Aztec Building

Nov. 5—SAN BENITO — After more than 20 years, the Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame and Museum has found a home.

Like organizers of the city's San Benito History Museum and Freddy Fender Museum, Rey Avila dreamed of moving the world's only conjunto museum into the city's new Cultural Heritage Museum, part of a project he helped push for more than 10 years.

In 2019, he died waiting to move in.

Like the history museum and the Freddy Fender museum, the conjunto museum remained in the city's Community Building, where it opened in 2007, while city officials began staging traveling exhibits in the $1.7 million Cultural Heritage Museum.

Now, Patricia and Pete Avila, Avila's children, are moving his museum into the historic Aztec Building on the resaca's banks off Robertson Street.

"The new museum would have been awesome but we'll take this," Patricia Avila, a school teacher, said. "My dad dreamed of making a museum for conjunto artists. He wanted to share their stories."

Iconic building

Last week, city commissioners entered into an agreement which will open the city-owned Aztec Building's first floor to Avila's museum.

"It's a beautiful structure," Patricia Avila said of the city landmark. "It's an iconic building. You can't miss it. The building has a lot of character. This is a solid building — concrete walls. They used to have a dance hall on the roof — people had dances up there and orchestras would be performing. I think it's got a lot of potential."

Built around 1930, some say in the shape of a ship pointing canons, the Aztec Building housed the city's offices and its chamber of commerce.

Through the years, its first floor became home to the Sobra Las Olas Mexican restaurant, whose lavish setting featured an atrium and aquarium. On its rooftop, the Bohemian Club held dances while orchestras played under a huge shell overlooking the resaca.

Renovation

As part of the project, the city spent $35,000 to renovate the building's first floor, spokesman David Favila stated.

"It looks really good inside," Avila said. "They've tiled the floor, painted up the walls and resurfaced the whole roof where the dance hall was."

At City Hall, officials are counting on the museum to help draw tourism to town.

"City management looks forward to finalizing the agreement and having the museum group display its collection at the city's Aztec Building," Favila stated. "The museum group will give conjunto music enthusiasts and visitors a place to experience and learn about the history, the musicians and San Benito's involvement in the evolution of this musical genre."

By late December, Avila is planning to open the museum.

"I want to make this bigger and grander for the community and everyone," she said.

Conjunto legacy

Since 2007, the museum along with the history museum and the Freddy Fender museum shared part of the Community Building, where Avila's father showcased his artifacts in a 600-square-foot area.

At the Aztec Building, Avila is expanding her father's exhibits across a 1,200-square-foot display.

Now, she is planning to display artifacts passed down from the city's legendary Ideal Recording Studio, where master accordionist Narciso Martinez pioneered conjunto music.

Since the studio closed about 60 years ago, its relics have languished in storage, including three Finebilt record presses which once turned out as many as 1,500 records a day for distribution in the United States, Mexico and Central America.

Among the artifacts is a tall Ampex Corporation recording machine that captured many of conjunto's classics on reel-to-reel tapes.

"We're going to have a lot of space to exhibit things we had in storage," Avila said.

Re-creating Ideal Recording Studio

For 10 years, her father dreamed of re-creating the studio in his museum.

"In my dad's dreams, on his wish list was the recreation of that studio," she said. "We're going to try to honor my dad's wishes. We're going to recreate the Ideal Recording Studio. We have my dad's notes on how he would want the museum to be displayed."

History museum, Freddy Fender museum staying put

Meanwhile, the San Benito History Museum and the Freddy Fender Museum will remain in the Community Building, Wayne Powell, president of the San Benito Historical Society, said.

"We decided we didn't want to go to the Aztec Building — there wasn't enough room for both of us," he said, referring to the conjunto museum.

At the Community Building, the history museum and Freddy Fender museum will share a 2,400-square-foot area, he said.

Redesigning museum

Now, the history museum is being redesigned, Powell said.

"We're laying out a design to re-do the museum," he said. "We want to re-do some of it to give it another look."

As part of the project, the museum is adding exhibits, Powell said.

"We're going to have a section on the notable people," he said. "There's a bunch of people from San Benito who are notable — Bobby Morrow, Freddy Fender, Sam Robertson."

Nearly three years after the city closed the museums amid the coronavirus pandemic, the history museum's organizers are waiting for its re-opening, Powell said.

"It's going to be a few months," he said. "It's going to depend on when the design's done."