Last week, two schoolgirls, confused about why the computer lab at the Logan Heights Library was closed in the middle of the afternoon, watched as city contractors lugged a large painting by San Diego artist Eugene Taylor through the hallway. Other library patrons gathered as the ornately framed oil painting—which depicts the moment Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II got word of Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés' arrival—was hoisted onto a wall in its new home, adding much-needed color to the formerly drab computer lab.
During the next few weeks, the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture will finish installing the city's collection of historic art that was salvaged from the former Aztec Brewing Company building into various rooms and nooks inside the library.
Some folks have been waiting decades to see the collection of art reemerge.
"One of the great joys of having had a career for 14 years in one place is that I get to see the completion of projects that have a long lifespan," says Dana Springs, executive director of the arts commission. "Finally having this Aztec Brewery collection on display will be really rewarding."
The San Diego History Center's collection of photos of the Aztec Brewing Company depict the brewery and tasting room as looking more like a lavish chapel or art museum than a beer hall. Located at 2301 Main St. in Barrio Logan from 1933 to 1953, the so-called Aztec Brewery Rathskeller was adorned with original murals by Spanish artist Jose Moya del Pino, paintings by Taylor, hand-painted wooden ceiling beams, stained-glass windows, furniture, chandeliers and other decorative elements.
When the building housing the old brewery was scheduled to be torn down in the late '80s, local muralist Salvador Torres and other artists and community members helped convince the San Diego City Council to declare the collection of art and painted artifacts historic. The work was eventually donated to the city and, until recently, has been tucked away in storage.
In 2012, the city won a $400,000 federal grant to restore the art and have it reinstalled somewhere back in the same neighborhood. It was originally intended for the Mercado del Barrio mixed-use project on National Avenue, but a commercial tenant (preferably a restaurant) that could meet the strict set of parameters necessary to exhibit the collection of public art never materialized at the Mercado. The city eventually resolved to have the work installed in the Logan Heights Library instead.
"It's city-owned property, it has broad public access and it's in the Barrio Logan / Logan Heights neighborhood," Springs says.
Not all of the Aztec Brewery artifacts could be restored, she says, but the majority of important and recognizable works from the rathskeller were brought back to life by experts at the Balboa Art Conservation Center.
"The conservation team has performed miracles," Springs says, noting that some of the work was made with unconventional and unstable materials.
The city, particularly City Councilmember David Alvarez's office, which helped secure funding for the project, is working with library staff to organize a community celebration once all the work is up.
Springs, alluding to controversy surrounding the perceived value of the collection and arguments about where the art should eventually end up, used the upcoming public-art unveiling as an opportunity to issue a challenge to San Diego's growing brewery scene.
"A lot of discussion has been had about the historic nature of the pieces and the value of the pieces, but I think people are going to be amazed at the sheer beauty of this work when they see it," she says. "And hopefully it will inspire all of our local tasting rooms to engage artists in their interior design work."