Posted: Nov 10, 2012 2:53 PM
Updated: Nov 10, 2012 2:54 PM
SAN ANTONIO (AP) Arthur Estrada still remembers the day he stood on the platform of the city's International & Great Northern Railroad depot and saw his father off to war.
It was 1944. Estrada was 3. Soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder beneath the long platform awning. His father was one of them, headed to fight in the European theater in World War II.
Estrada's father picked him up and kissed him before he climbed aboard the train and out of his son's life forever.
"That was the last time I ever saw him," said Estrada, 71. His father stepped on a land mine and died two months before the war ended.
Thousands of passengers have filed through the station since it opened in 1907. Some were bound for war; others were headed home, south to the border or north to far-flung cities across the country.
But it's been more than 30 years since the building on North Medina Street west of downtown was used for travel. After World War II, passenger rail service gradually declined, and the station closed in 1970. The building was abandoned, deteriorating into a squatters' hovel.
That's about to change.
Two years ago, VIA Metropolitan Transit bought the depot from Generations Federal Credit Union, which renovated it in the mid-1980s.
The station will become the hub for VIA's planned streetcar system and, even sooner, for its bus rapid transit service, VIA Primo, which will use longer, articulated buses that stop at fewer places but more frequently.
BRT service begins Dec. 17, the same day the station, now called the West Side Multimodal Transit Center, will open to the public, though ticketing services won't begin there until January, VIA spokeswoman Priscilla Ingle said. Streetcars could launch by 2016 or 2017.
Though the opening date is rapidly approaching, the station was still a credit union branch as of Oct. 26, when all banking operations moved out.
Last Wednesday, VIA-contracted construction crews moved in. Within a few hours, they were dismantling bank teller desks and pulling up carpet, revealing the station's original Mexican tile.
Credit union administrative offices will remain in the building until Nov. 30, said Ashley Harris, the credit union's associate vice president of corporate communications.
Then the keys will officially be handed over to VIA.
The upheaval has been bittersweet for Generations Federal Credit Union CEO Tim Haegelin, who will retire Nov. 21.
"I am saddened by the fact when you live in this building a number of years, and you work here, you feel like it belongs to you," Haegelin said. As he spoke, sitting in the credit union board room, construction workers dismantled interior trappings a floor below.
"It feels like somebody is doing a personal attack on you," he said.
It was Haegelin, along with his board of directors, who agreed to buy and salvage the building, after a bit of convincing from then-Mayor Henry Cisneros. Though the depot was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, it had fallen into disrepair, its interior looted and marred by debris, graffiti and remnants of fires set by squatters.
Thieves had stripped the copper from the domed roof. Every one of the ornate stained-glass windows the larger ones modeled after the Rose Window at Mission San Jos had been shattered.
The copper Indian that stands atop the metal dome had been stolen years before. Though it was recovered within weeks of the theft, found in a trash heap 500 yards from the station, the statue still hadn't been remounted on the roof by the time Cisneros asked Haegelin to consider buying the property.
Haegelin was skeptical. The design wasn't ideal for a bank, and credit union officials were two days from closing on another location, said Generations' Harris.
But the board took a chance. The bank, then called San Antonio City Employees Federal Credit Union, bought the site and renovated the building at a cost of $3.6 million. It opened in 1988.
Over the years, many people have dropped by to visit the station, Harris said, because of their personal connection to it. Estrada's wife, Ruth Sanchez Estrada, also traveled through there when she was a child, taking the train to visit Laredo. Years after he'd seen his father off to war, Estrada became a credit union customer. His son now sits on the credit union's supervisory committee.
Haegelin had his own connection to the depot. He was a baby when his mother, arriving from Oklahoma City, carried him through the train station in 1944. The story goes that his mother had reason to visit the train conductor's corner office on the second floor. That would become Haegelin's office when the credit union opened at the site 44 years later.
Whether it was his personal connection or what he calls his obsessive-compulsive nature, Haegelin oversaw even the smallest details of the depot's renovation. He researched period lighting to ensure he chose the right kind of lamp posts for the lobby. He gathered all the remaining shards of stained glass he could find and sent them to a company in New York that specialized in a particular kind of glassmaking. It turned out to be the same company that designed the original stained-glass windows at the station, Harris said.
The windows Haegelin restored will remain when VIA takes over. Crews will gut the first-floor lobby area, remove all the flooring, add new lighting and install new banisters and railings. The lamp posts will have to go.
The exterior will remain largely the same when VIA takes over, though the landscape around it will likely change.
Reopening the train station is the first phase of VIA's plan to create a transit hub in the area just north of the Commerce Street bridge and in the shadow of Bexar County Jail. The agency hopes to buy properties catty-corner to the depot in order to develop a covered, open-air transit plaza. This second phase probably won't open until 2015.
Commuter rail service is also a possibility, if money can be found for a line connecting San Antonio to Austin.
But even the initial changes to the depot were enough to rattle the remaining credit union employees Wednesday, who continued to work as construction crews began to drill and hammer, ripping out wiring and knocking away pieces of the teller desks.
One longtime credit union employee, Mary Lou Benavides, walked out of her office on the second floor, overlooking the first level. She stared down at the workers, put her hand over heart and gasped.
"Oh my God."
"I don't like to see it like that," she said later. She has worked for the credit union for 39 years and had an office in the station since it opened.
But she predicts that she'll be back because her husband is a VIA bus operator.
She's happy to know both of them can one day tell their grandchildren that their grandparents worked in a historic place such as this.
"Not everybody can say that," she said, "but we can."
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com