End of an era: Tommy’s Lounge building demolished

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It’s been gathering dust for the better part of two decades, but now a Main Street landmark and symbol of Belen’s long history is about to bite the dust.

Mike Bush-News-Bulletin photo: A Main Street landmark in Belen is being demolished after standing vacant since the ’90s. The building has held many memories for Hub City residents and the family of the late Tommy Garcia, the owner of Tommy’s Lounge.

Still known with great affection as Tommy’s Lounge, the two-story building on the southwest corner of Main and Didier — constructed, according to the county assessor’s office, in 1898 — has become a safety hazard and is being torn down.

The owner, Percy Yu, said Tommy’s had already closed and the building had stood vacant for some time before he purchased it in the late 1990s.

“I have no idea how long it was empty,” the 73-year-old Albuquerque resident said last week.

But he recalled having great plans for Tommy’s when he bought the building from Tommy Garcia, a friend, who has since died.

“I intended to renovate it,” Yu said. “I spent a lot of money and drew up plans for remodeling. Then the rain came and I encountered difficulties. I’m a dreamer, but that time I guess I bit off more than I could chew.”

Shortly after he purchased the landmark, the area was hit by an unusually heavy storm that severely damaged the roof and upper floor. Yu, himself, climbed up on the roof to try to patch it, but a code enforcement officer spotted him and told him he needed a permit. The officer ordered him to cease and desist. So Yu hired a licensed contractor at some cost.

A new roof was installed and the exterior walls restuccoed, but it was too late, he said. The damage had been done.

And so the years went by and Tommy’s stood vacant, an aging, lonely ghost of times past — dark, deserted and desolate. The windows were boarded, the front door chained and weeds sprouted around the edge of the building.

At some point a “For Sale” sign went up, but it was largely ignored and soon became just another part of the dreary landscape.

But back in the day, even before it was Tommy’s, the building had a rich history. If the walls could speak, they would tell of a Gamble’s hardware store, a telephone company switchboard, a hotel, a garage and an old-fashioned drug store and soda fountain where teenagers would dance to jukebox tunes. That was in the 1940s. The upstairs was a boarding house, where several school teachers lived.

Former Mayor Ronnie Torres said he believes it is the city’s oldest commercial building.

Most people, however, remember it simply as Tommy’s Lounge.

Darlene Aragon, an advertising representative for the News-Bulletin, was once a regular at Tommy’s and is one of those with fond memories. She doesn’t drink alcohol, and the only soft drinks the bar served were Coke and Sprite. She complained so much that Tommy’s began ordering Dr. Pepper just for her.

Aragon also remembers a “huge” poster of John F. Kennedy hanging above the rest room doors and the bar’s beautiful pressed-tin ceiling.

“It was a great place,” Aragon said.

One of Tommy Garcia’s daughters, Linda Cordova, said she was saddened to hear the building is being demolished, but added that she understands why.

“There’s a lot of good memories in that place,” Cordova said. “But the building was beginning to fall down even when my dad had it. He would just fix it up himself from time to time.”

Her dad had once met President Kennedy, which is the story behind the poster.

“In those days, women didn’t go into bars, so we would have to stand in the back and call my dad when we wanted to give him something,” Cordova said. “For example, my mom would boil eggs for the bar, but then he would have to come in the back and she would hand them to him.”

When Tommy Garcia bought the building, he shut down a dining area with an old-fashioned piano and dance floor and put in tables. Cordova, who was only about 10 years old at the time, remembers a “beautiful redwood — I think it was redwood — bar with thick sliding glass doors.”

To this day, one of her most pleasant memories is of the family decorating Tommy’s for all the holidays, “especially Christmas, but not just Christmas.

“It was a wonderful feeling,” she said. “We were so happy my dad had that business.”

Another of Tommy Garcia’s daughters, Lorraine Romero, said her dad bought the building around 1958 from Roy and Esther Buckland, who operated their pharmacy there,

She said the bar, which occupied the ground floor, became a gathering point every year for the Valencia County Fair parade, even though at first it was “strictly a man’s bar.” Even so, she said, it was extremely clean.

At one point there was talk of adding the structure to the National Registry of Historic Places, she said, but that never happened.

When the owners of Koch Farms hired dozens of Filipinos to pick crops, they also rented all 32 hotel rooms on the second floor, Romero said.

The building’s very first owner was Fred Becker who operated a mercantile store. Becker’s brother, John, owned a much larger mercantile store a few blocks away, said Maggie McDonald, a local historian.

Steven Tomita, Belen’s Planning and Zoning director, said that at some point a section of the north wall had begun buckling.

Bricks from the wall had fallen inside the structure and chips of stucco and brick had dropped outside onto window sills and the ground below. It was just a matter of time before falling debris would begin endangering pedestrians and motorists.

“It had reached the point where it had become a safety issue,” Tomita said.

The city contacted Yu to express its concerns. He, too, had been monitoring the structure’s condition and realized that the deterioration didn’t help any chances he had of selling the property. He could look up through the roof and see daylight, he said.

He decided to demolish the two-story portion of the building; the single-story section on the south side will remain.

Yu said he still hopes to sell the property.

The demolition is being handled by two Albuquerque firms, Madrid Contractors and M&S Home Services. Contractor Darryl Madrid said it will take about two weeks to complete the job, which began Friday.

Were it not for the area where the north wall is collapsing, Madrid said, the 114-year-old building would probably be salvageable.

“That could go at any time,” he said, pointing at the fallen bricks cluttering the floor. “It’s really dangerous.”

Philip Ortega, one of the demolition men and a resident of Belen, said his mother told him she had many good times in the old dance hall.

But the rest of the demolition crew probably doesn’t realize the depth of history hovering behind the falling walls of Tommy’s Lounge.

As they haul away plaster and wood and stucco and brick, they are also erasing an early and most poignant memory of Old Belen.