History of the Mercado Building
City Hall and Market House
By Jo Anne Balzar and Jerry Thompson
Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences
Laredo Junior College
West End of Washington Street
Laredo, Texas 78040
The early 1800s brought dynamic change to the city of Laredo. The financially troubled Texas-Mexican Railroad reached Laredo from Corpus Christi in November of 1881. It was followed in December by the arrival of the International and Great Northern Railroad from San Antonio. At the same time, the Mexican National Railway raced to extend its lines south from Nuevo Laredo and north from Mexico City. In 1881, the Rio Grande and Eagle Pass narrow-gauge built thirty miles of track upriver to the coal mines at Dolores, Minera and Darwin. The population of Laredo quickly grew to three times what it had been less than a decade earlier. (1) Immigrants poured into Laredo from all over the United States and Mexico.
City councilmen commenced discussing the feasibility of constructing a new and larger city hall complete with city offices and an adjacent market. The new city hall would replace the old “Casa Consistorial” which stood on the south side of St. Augustine Plaza. (2)
In March 1883, W.H. Tyndall, a well-known Galveston architect, was chosen over several other architects to complete plans for the new edifice. (3) Tyndall was eventually paid $625 for his Plan #2. Louis J. Giraud, a local contractor, was selected to construct the building when he submitted the low bid of $43,000, a considerable sum of money in 1883. The aldermen had originally estimated the cost of the structure to be in the neighborhood of $25,000. (4) After considerable debate among the aldermen as to the quality of the construction, the structure was completed in 1884.
The new city hall was built in the eclectic style which was becoming popular at the time. A number of design elements taken from different traditional architectural styles were used in the building’s design. The new brick and stucco structure was actually two buildings constructed into a T shape. The first floor, a two-story west wing, which faced Flores Avenue, housed the offices of the mayor, city secretary, and marshall, as well as council chambers. On the second floor was a large auditorium. The auditorium was used mainly as an opera house with a stage, dressing rooms, electric lights, and a seating capacity for several hundred. Just before the turn of the century, numerous local and out of town dramatists performed in the auditorium to the cheers of the city’s populace. (5) A number of Laredo’s private schools also used the auditorium to stage their theatrical productions. Halloween, Easter, and Christmas parties were also common in the large auditorium. In 1885, a new floor was constructed to permit roller skating, a popular sport at the time.
The eastern portion of the structure, which was built a few months later, was to act as a market house to replace a hodge-podge of vending stalls which has previously stood on the location. The warehouse-like building had arched windows and a large wooden roof, supported by steel beams and bracing. Louver vents were constructed at the center of the room to allow for ventilation. The city was hoping to clean up the area by placing all the vegetable and mean vendors indoors and regulating all sales. The Market House, complete with an interior water fountain, was cool and well ventilated and thus attracted a large percentage of the city’s population. (6)
The first “market master,” J.T. Agar, was appointed in June of 1884 with a salary of twenty dollars a month. By the latter part of the decade, the city was receiving as much as $8,000 a year in rent from the market. At first “burners” were used to light the market, but by 1888, electric lights had been installed. (7) An ordinance to permit food stands or what were called “vendimias” on the outside of the east wing was passed in 1884. After the turn of the century, however, many of these small stands were abolished for sanitary reasons and “taxi stands” were established on the west and north side of the building. (8)
The west two-story wing, or City Hall, originally included a large and impressive two-story belfry-shaped cupola. On April 28, 1905, however, a tornado struck the city killing twenty-one citizens in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo and seriously damaging a number of historical landmarks. The dark and deadly twister wrecked the ornate cupola. The City Council, quoting a replacement cost of three-thousand dollars, decided not to replace the belfry since it had never been “a thing of beauty anyway.” (9)
With the completion of a new City Hall and market, the city’s social and political heart shifted from St. Augustine Plaza, which had traditionally been the center of the city’s social and religious life, to the area around the new city hall, especially Flores Avenue. Political rallies attracting thousands became common at the new location. By 1899 the George Washington Birthday Celebration began tagging its annual parade on Flores Avenue in front of the City Hall. (10)
In 1916, the city allowed the Laredo Women’s Club to use a portion of the second floor of the City Hall for a small library. A new floor was installed and minor interior renovations were made at this time. For a brief time in 1916 and 1917, the second story was used to house students from Laredo High School while a new high school of St. Augustine Plaza was under construction. (11)
Sometime prior to 1930, Market House was converted into an arena for athletic events. In the early 1930’s a major renovation of the building took place. At this time the upstairs was converted into a library. Market Hall became the offices for the Laredo Police Department, Municipal Court, and for the City Tax Collector and Assessor. Alterations included the removal of details which adorned the roofline of the building. A small portico, which stood over the Flores Street entrance to City Hall, was also removed at this time. (12)
In 1915, the building underwent a number of interior alterations. The city assumed full responsibility for financing and supervising the library.
In 1975, the public library moved to a new location on Bruni Plaza and the upstairs of the building was converted into office space. Three years later the police department moved its offices to the old Laredo Air Force Base. (13)
In 1985, through a federally-funded restoration program, the building was completely restored at a cost of $800,000 and converted into a market place. Today the building is officially known as “El Mercado.”
Census of Webb County, Texas, 1870 and 1880, The National Archives, Washington, D.C. Jerry Thompson, LAREDO: A PICTORAL HISTORY (Norfolk: Donning Company, 1986), pp. 56-59. Gilberto Hinojosa, A BORDERLANDS TOWN IN TRANSITION: LAREDO, 1755-1870 (College Station, 1983), pp.
City Council Minutes, March 17, 1883, MINUTE BOOK, City Secretary’s Office, Laredo, Texas, pp. 115-116.
Ibid., June 2, 1883.
“Design Standards and Inventory of Significant Buildings, Old Mercado District, Laredo, Texas.” Prepared for the City of Laredo by Leyendecker and Cavazos, Architects, and Carol Gunther, Preservation Consultant.
City Council Minutes, June 19, 1884.
Ibid., May 5, 1888.
Interview, Ramiro Sanchez, September 12, 1986; Alphonse Siro, September 13, 1986.
LAREDO TIMES. May 23, 1905.
Thompson, LAREDO: A PICTORAL HISTORY, pp. 196-199.
Ibid. p. 236. Interview, Mary Cook, April 12, 1986.
LAREDO TIMES, December 24, 1961.
LAREDO MORNING TIMES, February 13, 1987; July 26, 1987.