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A Brewery’s Vivid Artwork, Mothballed for Years

Above: In the 1930s, the Aztec Brewing Co. rathskeller was a popular tasting room. The lavish decor included murals and a painted ceiling. Courtesy of San Diego History Center.

When the last pints were poured in the old brick building home to the Aztec Brewing Co., it was the only brewery left in San Diego.

Aired 4/16/12 on KPBS News.

A brewery built in Barrio Logan after Prohibition contained bright murals and colorful windows, furniture and even ceiling beams. The property is now a parking lot, and the art's been sitting in storage for more than two decades. This is the first of a two-part series reported together with Voice of San Diego.

Twenty years earlier, in the 1930s, the brewery bustled. Prohibition’s end allowed Aztec’s owners to bring their business over the border from Mexico. They built out a tasting room, where San Diegans sipped local brews around hand-carved tables and chairs. Stained glass windows and murals imbued the walls with color, many of them painted by a cultural emissary sent to the United States by the king of Spain. Art covered even the ceiling.

These days, breweries all over town feature tasting rooms, gardens, art and food in the beer-tasting experience. But this tasting room on Main Street in Barrio Logan was a destination decades before San Diego cemented its reputation as a craft-brew capital.

Now it's a parking lot. And the art would've been lost forever if not for an 11th-hour fight to save it from the wrecking ball in the 1980s. The city of San Diego picked up the art and furniture for safekeeping then, promising to bring it all back to the neighborhood. Over the years, the collection has moved from place to place, a portion ending up today in crates in a storage unit in El Cajon.

Murals are iconic in Barrio Logan. They cover the pillars of Chicano Park in the middle of the neighborhood, the park created when crisscrossing freeways were built overhead in the 1960s. But those come in a long tradition. Artwork from the brewery predates the Chicano Park murals by 40-some years.

“Even then, folks were working in the canneries and the shipyards, but there were musicians strolling around and they had massive artwork that speaks to the culture that’s been here for years; even before Chicano Park,” said state Sen. Denise Ducheny, whose longtime office is half a mile from the old brewery site.

“Chicano Park was an outgrowth of that,” she said. “The rathskeller proves it.”

'San Diego Brew Flowing Again!'

Location of the former Aztec Brewery Co. in Barrio Logan.

Above: Location of the former Aztec Brewery Co. in Barrio Logan.

The original Aztec Brewing Co. produced A.B.C. Beer in Mexicali, established in 1921 during Prohibition in the United States. Three businessmen went in to buy an old tire company in Barrio Logan to convert it into a brewery as soon as the alcohol ban lifted. One of them, Herbert Jaffe, had studied brewing in Czechoslovakia. Another, James Crofton, was a major partner in the Agua Caliente Hotel and Casino in Mexico.

An Aztec Brewing Co. employee brews beer in the shadow of a 9-foot Aztec calendar in 1937. Courtesy of San Diego History Center.
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Above: An Aztec Brewing Co. employee brews beer in the shadow of a 9-foot Aztec calendar in 1937. Courtesy of San Diego History Center.

The brewery opened in 1933 to a triumphant headline, "San Diego Brew Flowing Again!" The owners dubbed their tasting room a "rathskeller," invoking the German word for a basement watering hole. Aztec used technologically advanced machinery to brew beer and required so many bottles for its popular brews it was second only to Anheuser-Busch in orders from a glass bottle manufacturer.

Years earlier, in the 1920s, King Alfonso XIII of Spain sent portrait painter Jose Moya del Pino on a cultural tour to the United States with replicas he'd made of Spanish paintings, like those of Diego Velazquez. By the time he got to San Francisco, the government in Spain had collapsed, drying up the money for his tour. He began painting portraits to pay the bills. He painted murals for the Coit Tower and a brewery and post offices in San Francisco.

Spanish artist Jose Moya del Pino paints a mural inside the Aztec Brewing Co. rathskeller in 1934. Courtesy of San Diego History Center.
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Above: Spanish artist Jose Moya del Pino paints a mural inside the Aztec Brewing Co. rathskeller in 1934. Courtesy of San Diego History Center.

Moya del Pino's work caught the eye of the Aztec brewers in San Diego, who commissioned him to paint murals in the Barrio Logan brewery's tasting room.

The murals were vibrant and exotic, depicting themes and images from Aztec and Mayan eras, some hewing to Spanish colonial styles and others reflecting both the '30s-era Mexican and U.S. mural movements. One centerpiece mural behind the tiled serving bar showed the ancient Aztec ritual of human sacrifice, a priest extracting a man's heart.

Moya del Pino also oversaw the rest of the rathskeller's decoration, which included painted and carved tables and chairs and ceiling beams, chandeliers, tiled mahogany cabinets, stained glass windows and doors, and a 9-foot replica of the Aztec calendar.

"Those were the days of the pleasure palaces and high level of imagination and fantastic decors and Hollywood and big blockbuster recreations," said San Diego art appraiser Pamela Bensoussan. "It was part of that era."

And it drew crowds from all over town. Neighborhood folks gathered for a few "tastes" after a long day working in the canneries or on the docks. The brewery sponsored a softball team, the players and their wives stopping in for post-game parties.

Rachael Ortiz, now director of the Barrio Station community center, grew up in Barrio Logan. Her mom, a Pentecostal minister, "would not dare go in there," but she'd send young Ortiz down to the rathskeller to find her dad. While she waited for him to finish tasting, Ortiz gazed at the artwork.

"The stained glass windows were beautiful," she said. "I would just stare, just look at all the beauty and the colors that he used were so vivid."

'It Was Like Walking into a Temple'

A 1936 championship-winning softball team gathers in the Aztec Brewing Co. rathskeller for a celebratory drink.  Courtesy of San Diego History Center.
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Above: A 1936 championship-winning softball team gathers in the Aztec Brewing Co. rathskeller for a celebratory drink. Courtesy of San Diego History Center.

In 1988, Salvador Torres flipped through an issue of the weekly San Diego Reader. A vintage photograph caught his eye: a 1936 softball team guzzling down some A.B.C. beer after a victory. The so-described "dapper jocks" posed in front of a mural painted by Moya del Pino, whom the caption identified as "a one-time student of Picasso."

The address listed in the caption, across Harbor Drive from the Nassco shipyard, was just a few blocks from Torres' home in Barrio Logan. A muralist himself, Torres was intrigued and grabbed his cameras. He phoned the owner and got permission to see inside.

"We open the door and it was like walking into a temple," Torres said with a sigh. "A temple site. My God, it was so beautiful and different in that dust everywhere, paintings on the wall, full of dust, and hand-carved beams on the ceiling. I mean, it was remarkable."

The property's new owners had plans to demolish the building and to divvy up some of the artwork among themselves and their families. Torres felt he'd discovered something special, a missing link connecting a Spanish artist to the Mexican mural tradition, featuring Aztec and Mayan themes in a Chicano neighborhood.

And the wrecking ball was due in a few days, poised to destroy it.

Torres scrambled.

He rallied fellow artists and took tracing paper and pencil to the rathskeller, attempting to preserve the images and recreate them somewhere in Chicano Park. The buzz attracted newspaper and TV coverage about the long-forgotten murals.

Muralist Salvador Torres in 1988. His early attempts to save the rathskeller art involved making tracings of many of the pieces. Courtesy of Rachael Ortiz.
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Above: Muralist Salvador Torres in 1988. His early attempts to save the rathskeller art involved making tracings of many of the pieces. Courtesy of Rachael Ortiz.

Torres even penned a poem addressed to Moya del Pino, pledging to release the artwork from "the destruction of your mute imprisoned tomb." For Torres, the threatened destruction was symbolic.

God help us

For if this is how

San Diego can forget

Our Hispanic masters of fine art

How then will we be remembered?

The San Diego Union newspaper's art critic, Robert Pincus, found Moya del Pino's supposed ties to Picasso and Diego Rivera overblown, but wrote the artists did know each other in Paris before World War I. And, Pincus concluded, "There is very little in San Diego that simultaneously illustrates the design and art interests of the era as well as this little building on Main Street."

Torres and his team wanted the whole rathskeller building itself relocated to or rebuilt in the nearby Chicano Park to serve as a sort of museum. After that, the building's owners could proceed with the demolition and move on with their industrial plans.

That invoked a longstanding quandary here: How to incentivize good jobs while still preserving neighborhood culture. Those supporting the developers said the neighborhood craved the jobs that would come with new warehouses. But others in the neighborhood, like Ducheny, felt the architecture of the brick rathskeller with built-in stained glass windows mattered as much as the art.

"And that was the tragedy, these warehouse buildings versus this gorgeous little almost-chapel-looking thing," she said.

Eventually, the San Diego City Council decided to declare the art inside the rathskeller historic, but not the building itself. Torres and his friends came out in force to extract the chunks of walls and ceilings containing Moya del Pino's artwork. And the developers donated the art to the city.

City officials pledged to preserve the artwork and to someday reinstall it in the Barrio Logan neighborhood; specifically in the Mercado del Barrio, a grocery store and retail development that was just beginning to be talked about in the late '80s. But that project met its own delays over the decades as city politics changed, landowners and potential developers quarreled and the real estate market slumped.

A piece of a mural painted in the 1930s on the walls of the Aztec Brewing Co. Courtesy of City of San Diego.
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Above: A piece of a mural painted in the 1930s on the walls of the Aztec Brewing Co. Courtesy of City of San Diego.

Some of the big, vibrantly colored murals went to the Balboa Art Conservation Center, which volunteered to store them for free. The city picked up the rest of the paintings, chairs, ceiling beams and stained glass windows, moving them whenever they had a free place to keep them. For a time, some of the pieces went up in a back room at Chuey's, a staple Mexican restaurant. But for years now, the city's been paying for storage for a large portion of the collection, a tab of about $78,000 since 2001.

At the time, Torres opposed any plan to put it in storage. "Once it's mothballed, that's the end of it," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1988.

For the past 24 years, that seemed true.

TOMORROW: San Diegans may soon be able to again imbibe surrounded by the historically rich, colorful pieces. Find out what it'll take for this collection, now crated in storage, to re-emerge.

Kelly Bennett is a reporter for Voice of San Diego.

Angela Carone is a reporter for KPBS. You can reach them directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or acarone@kpbs.org.

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