Harlingen’s tallest building has been brought back to life after decades of standing vacant and abandoned. Known by many names such as the Baxter Building, Rio Grande National Life Building, McKelvey Building, Los Nueve Pisos, and Blaschka Tower, it’s presence in downtown can be seen by many who have opposing views of it. Many have wanted it to be demolished and just as many have wanted it to be saved due to it’s historical past.
“The 1927 Baxter Building is a 9-story speculative office building named for Robert W. Baxter and designed by local architects Birger Elwing and Roy Winfield Mulhausen. The Baxter Building was conceived as a 7-story office building, but two additional floors were added during its construction when another building (El Jardin – Brownsville) threatened to be the area’s tallest. The Baxter Building held the title of tallest building in the Rio Grande Valley until 1971” 1.
“Namesake Robert “Bob” Baxter went on a land excursion trip to Texas in 1922. He purchased a ten-acre citrus grove near La Feria, around nine miles west of Harlingen. He was enticed by the development potential in what seemed like a promising town in the Rio Grande Valley. Baxter traveled back to Arkansas, liquidated his assets, and moved with his family to Texas. By the time he was ready to start construction on the Baxter Building, Southern Pacific Railroad had nearly completed the track from San Antonio, making “Harlingen a hub of the Rio Grande Valley.” Within a year of completion of the nominated building, Baxter organized the Rio Grande National Life Insurance Company and served as president. The company had grown so successful in just two years that in 1930, Baxter moved it to Dallas, at which point he sold the Baxter Building to the Rio Grande National Life Insurance Company.
The Baxter Building was completed in June of 1927 and was one-hundred percent occupied within two weeks. Comprised of about eight small offices per floor, the building’s first occupants were insurance companies, financial firms, physicians, dentists, attorneys, architects, realtors, and other professionals. A drugstore and beauty shop occupied the ground-level and basement retail spaces. Beginning in 1930, the top floor of the Baxter Building housed the KRGV radio station, which used the height of the building to take advantage of a stronger antenna signal. The “Valley Voice” had two rooftop antennas and broadcast to 25,000 radios in the Rio Grande Valley daily. However, on Labor Day of 1933, a hurricane ravaged the city and its strong winds knocked over KRGV’s antennas, forcing the radio station to relocate to Weslaco. Despite the damage to the radio antennas, the Baxter Building remained relatively intact” 1.
“The concentration of medical professionals in a single building rather than operating from separate small clinics was an early twentieth century trend in growing cities.
During World War II, the United States War Department and a branch of the Red Cross had offices in the building as well. In 1947, John Walker McKelvey, a Harlingen developer, purchased the Baxter Building from the Rio Grande National Life Insurance Company. The building was renamed the “McKelvey Building” and the first floor lobby was remodeled. The year 1956 represents a significant shift in the function of the building and signifies the end of the period of significance. In that year, offices on five floors of the Baxter Building were converted into the Skyview Apartments. These apartments were scattered throughout the building on selected upper floors. After
the apartments were added in 1956, no additional units were constructed, and the building never fully transitioned to strictly residential use. The apartments ended up not being successful.
The building maintained the professional office use into the 1960s in the remaining offices but did not convert the apartments back to offices. Ownership of the Baxter Building changed hands several times without any change to the functional (residential and commercial) use of the building until 1988 when the building was sold to Every Enterprises and renamed Blaschka Tower after Wayne Blaschka, the company’s principal. Every Enterprises, Inc. did not make any substantial improvements to the building after an unsuccessful attempt to convert the building to public housing, and vacancies mounted. Eventually the building became completely vacant and abandoned” 1.
For decades, Harlingen’s leaders had talked about ways to rid the city of its tallest building after it had turned into what people called an eyesore that lured vandals.
When Chris Boswell won the 2007 mayor election, he made the historic building’s renovation one of his administration’s goals.
Then in late 2015, city commissioners entered into an agreement with MRE Capital to renovate the nine-story building to its original condition. As part of a contract, the Harlingen Community Improvement Board agreed to sell the Baxter Building to MRE Capital for $250,000 on the condition the developer clinch federal tax credits to help fund the $4.5 million renovation project.
The building has now been transformed into affordable housing apartments and named “Baxter Lofts”. After some setbacks of it’s opening due to recent flooding, the remodeled building is now accepting applications and giving tours. Their Facebook page will have more information about it’s opening.
I hope you enjoyed the article! Let me know what you think of this place and if you have any additional information you want to share! I will leave you all with a link to my Flickr album to see more photos.
You can also sign up below to get an email whenever I make a new post!
Baxter Building Album – Click Here for more photos!
All history and photo sources: