Unearthing Barrio Logan's hidden artistic past
April 18, 2012 12:58 p.m.
Kelly Bennett, arts editor at Voice of San Diego
Angela Carone, arts reporter at KPBS
Related Story: Unearthing Barrio Logan's Hidden Artistic Past
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. As the long planned Mercado Del Barrio commercial center in Barrio Logan begins to take shape, a long forgotten part of San Diego's art history is also about to emerge. It takes the form of murals, stained glass, paintings, ceiling beams all relics of the former Aztec brewing company. The story of how this art of the saved and how it will be restored is the focus of a 2-part series by my two guests, Angela Carone, KPBS arts reporter. Welcome.
CARONE: Thanks Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Kelly Bennett, arts reporter for voice of San Diego. Welcome.
BENNETT: Hi, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Kelly, let's start with this brewing itself. When was the heyday of the Aztec brewing company?
BENNETT: During prohibition, they started across the border in Mexicali in the '20s. When prohibition ended they moved and inhabited this old brick bell, and that was in the 30s and '40s.
CAVANAUGH: Where is it located?
BENNETT: In Barrio Logan on Main street. If you think about where Nasco is, across harbor drive from there. It's a parking lot now. But back in the day, it was there.
CAVANAUGH: And back in the day, was it the spot to be?
BENNETT: We heard from a lot of people who said that folks from the neighborhood who were working in the canneries or on the docks would actually stop by on their way home from work for a couple of those tastes in the tasting room of the ABC beer.
CAVANAUGH: Speaking of the tasting room, it was called a Rathskeller. Isn't that a German word?
BENNETT: It connotes this underground or in the basement bar under a City Hall or a government building in Germany. We're not sure why they called it the Rathskeller, but this was this time of the kind of exotic all around the world influencing Hollywood and things like that, so it's possible maybe they just tried to pull the most exotic word for a bar they could find.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, and over the top interior. Tell us what the interior, Angela, of the Aztec brewery Rathskeller looked like in the 30s and '40s.
CARONE: We have this one vintage photograph that is kind of the broadest view of the Rathskeller, and I would show it to a lot of people, and so many people said wow, that looks so much like a chapel. And it really does. It's this -- it was a small, brick room, and it had stained glass windows, and as you said in your intro, painted ceiling beams, a painted ceiling, it had these grand iron chandeliers, that are Spanish revival style, paintings on the wall of Aztec and Mayan imagery, then there was a tile bar and tables and chairs. So very, very lavish. And the sort of signature piece was behind the bar, and it was this large wall mural that depicted an Aztec human sacrifice, and it was very color and bright and painted by Jose Mia Del Pino.
CAVANAUGH: Did you speak with anyone who saw it in its glory days?
CARONE: Rachel Ortiz is the director of a community center in Barrio Logan. When she was a kid, she went and saw the Rathskeller. Her mother would send her there to get her dad who would stop off there after work to --
CAVANAUGH: Get lost in time?
CARONE: That's right. And her mother was a Pentecostal minister so she wouldn't step foot in there. So Rachel would often sit there and wait for her dad and allowed to sit at the bar, and she would look around at all of the artwork. And here's what she had to say.
NEW SPEAKER: You saw the artwork, it was just beautiful to see, and when you're a kid, you don't really realize the importance of it. You just see it, and you kind of stare at it and oh, is that what kind of Indian I am? Stuff like that. Oh, that looks like my uncle.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: That's wonderful! Now, you already told us the main artist involved in this. The name again?
CARONE: Jose Mia del Pino.
CAVANAUGH: Give us a little background on him.
BENNETT: He was from Spain. The king of Spain sent him to the U.S. on this cultural commission. And he brought dozens of paintings that had been copied from Spanish artists like Diego Velasquez. By the time he got to San Francisco, the money had run out for his mission. There was political strive in Spain. So to make ends meet, he started painting portraits and murals because this was sort of his style, very realistic or copying, I forgot what the artistic word is for that, but there's a school around making these replicas of famous pieces. So he painted some in the Bay Area, and Aztec brewery found out about a brewery he did up in the bay, and brought him down here to Barrio Logan to start painting the murals here in the Aztec brewery:
CAVANAUGH: And the theme goes with the name, Aztec brewery, right?
BENNETT: It does. It has influences from a few different places. One of them is yes, these -- the ancient rituals or sacrifices depicted, Aztec and Mayan. But it has some pieces that are more Spanish-influenced, there are pieces that resemble some of the other old murals you might see around the United States from THE '30s. This was a huge movement in THE '30s to paint realistic scenes from a community's history in libraries and post offices and stuff, and also the Mexican mural movement that was itself happening in Mexico. So it's this interesting microcosm of Spanish, pre-Columbian, thirties era U.S. murals all showing up in this one little room.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Angela, are the brewery closed in the 1950s. It just sat there for a lot of years. Was all that art work just sitting in there?
CARONE: It was. Yeah, are that artwork sat in this little boarded up room for 3†decades, basically, collecting dust. And ownership of the property changed hands a number of times. Portions of the brewery were used for different things at one point. There was a tire distribution center there. But the Rathskeller stayed boarded up. There were some efforts to generate interest in the artwork at one point. Historians from San Diego state were brought in to look at it, but nothing ever took hold until in the '80s it was going to be demolished.
CAVANAUGH: Right, that's one of the most dramatic aspects of your series on this. How this artwork was saved. The building was scheduled to be demolished in 1988. And tell us what happened.
CARONE: Well, the new developers were going to raze the whole complex, and that's where Salvador Torres comes in. It was 1988, and he was reading the Reader, and he came cross a photograph of a baseball team posing in front of the dell pino mural. And he had never seen the mural before. And he was shocked. So he realized that it was located the address was just blocks from his Barrio Logan home. So he immediately went over there to see if the mural was still there. And the owners let him in, and this is actually what Salvador Torres said when he was remembering walking into the building that first time in 1988.
NEW SPEAKER: We opened the door, and it was like walking into a Temple. My God! It was so beautiful. Dust everywhere, paintings on the wall, hand-carved beams. I mean, it was remarkable.
CAVANAUGH: And when he saw this, when Salvador Torres saw this, this was literally days away of this whole building being demolished right?
CARONE: That's right, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: So how -- what did he do?
BENNETT: He mounted this campaign, he wrote a poem saying if he demolish this art that speaks to this heritage in this particular community, how will we be remembered? He had a bunch of his artist friends take tracing paper and go actually trace the images as a last --
CAVANAUGH: Desperate attempt to save something out of this place that was going to be gone tomorrow!
BENNETT: Right. If need be, they want have recreated those images in Chicano park or in some other location to hang onto a little bit of them. But ultimately, he was successful in getting some attention, some media attention and some political attention from city leaders and advocates to be able to say, hey, let's save this. This is a -- yes, it hasn't been used for decades, but let's see if we can save this jewel in the middle of this neighborhood. So this was a battle between do we save the whole building or just the artwork inside? And ultimately the city said the artwork is -- declared it officially historic, which meant that the artwork could be taken out and preserved. The developers who were going to tear it down agreed to donate all of that artwork to the city. And the city took ownership then.
CAVANAUGH: And where has this artwork been then?
BENNETT: Over the years, it's been in different places. Several of the big mural pieces are in Balboa Park. There's an art conservation center there. But some of the other furniture and things have been moved from storage place to storage place whenever there has been a free place for them, that's always been the city's preference. But in some cases, the city paid for commercial storage. Right now, a big chunk of the pieces are in El Cajon in a traditionally traditional storage unit. You might see a couch in the one next door, and right next to it is this art from the '30s.
CAVANAUGH: Now the reason you two did this article, now that the Mercado del Barrio is sort of being constructed, it's on its way, the idea is that this art is going to be taken out and placed in some setting in that Mercado. Can you tell me what type of setting?
BENNETT: Yeah, the Mercado has space for a restaurant, and the thought is the best plan right now between the city and the developers who are building the Mercado is to take several of these pieces, ceiling beams and murals and paintings and the bar and the windows and things and actually build this restaurant around those pieces. So it would be a place where people could go, get dinner, or whatever, but they would be surrounded by these pieces that once surrounded maybe their grandparents or parents when they were having a taste of beer at the Aztec brewing company.
CAVANAUGH: Now, do these pieces need to be restored?
CARONE: Yes, they do. Of the city has received a grant from the federal government to restore some of the pieces. And I think it's roughly over $400,000, so that means they can't restore all of the pieces. Now, the city had commissioned an art appraiser to assess the value of the collection at one point. So they had the appraisal as a guide to help them decide what pieces to restore. Dana springs is the public art manager for the city, and she's been a part of those decisions, and here's what she has to say about choosing some of the pieces.
NEW SPEAKER: And some. The pieces are in such poor condition that it actually costs more to conserve them than they would end up being worth by the time they were done. And some of those pieces weren't the more unique pieces, like chairs, for example. Some of the chairs are in really horrible condition. But the really essential, unique pieces, the paintings, the painted beam, the painted doors, all of those are in the grant scope.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Angela, is everyone behind this idea of putting these works of art in a new restaurant?
CARONE: Not everyone. I think most significantly, the biggest detractor is Salvador Torres. He has a lot of reverence for this collection. He helped rediscover it, he helped save it, and he's always had hopes and dreams attached to where it should go in its future. And he has always held the belief that it should -- the Rathskeller should be restaged in an information center in Chicano park or in a museum-like setting. He feels really strongly that the ensemble should be kept together, that it shouldn't be broken up. And Pamela Bensoussan agrees with that sentiment. She believes that the two should be kept together. In her words, "the highest and best use of the collection are to keep it in 1 piece."
CAVANAUGH: What does he have to say about the quality and value of this work?
CARONE: Well, when she -- she was so interesting to talk to, because she saw it -- one of the only people to see it while it was in storage all of those years. And when she saw it, it was like a jigsaw puzzle, there were fragments of murals, pieces of plaster, and she had to reassemble it. And when she saw the fragments of murals for the first time, she was actually really surprised in what great shape they were.
NEW SPEAKER: You have to figure that they had not seen the light of day for decades. And when they were in the tasting room, the Rathskeller, it was dark, it wasn't exposed to light. The individual fragments were like paintings themselves. They were sister stunning. Very fresh in color am even though very damaged. The color was as if they were painted yesterday.
CARONE: So again, that being in the dark in that small setting helped preserve some of that color.
CAVANAUGH: And it's still soon to be coming to a restaurant at the Mercado del Barrio. Thank you both.
CARONE: Thank you.