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Arts & Culture

Thunderstorm Damages Iconic San Antonio Art, But A Fix Is Underway

A springtime thunderstorm took down a massive pecan tree just outside the San Antonio Zoo entrance. It's what it fell on that makes this a tale worth telling.

On the east side of the traffic circle just outside Brackenridge Park's San Antonio Zoo stood a massive pecan tree. But that tree was taken down during an overnight thunderstorm on May 28 of this year. Bob Waterman is the San Antonio Zoo's Director of Horticulture.

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Jack Morgan
The palapa a year and a half ago, before damage

"Yeah, it was a rather strong storm. It was daylight when I saw it, so I'm thinking it's around seven o'clock or so," he said.

About 66 mph winds were clocked in San Antonio the night the 70-foot tall tree was blown over. Pictures taken the next morning tell the tale. That tree lay right next to the stylish bench structure facing the traffic circle.

"You might have thought it might have crushed it, but it actually held up pretty well," he said.

The small structure would surely have been destroyed by a direct hit, but fortunately, it glanced the roofline.

"It was still resting on the roof when we got there. That was kind of heartbreaking to see that damage," he said.

That bench palapa was a piece of 90-year-old art, created by a master of his craft who has long since passed on. And his creations now are almost as much a storied part of the city as its iconic River Walk. Artist Carlos Cortes knows who made that palapa.

"Dionicio Rodriguez came from Mexico City, from Toluca. And this would have been the early ‘20s around 1924," he said.

Cortes is Rodriguez's great nephew. His father Maximo Cortes taught Carlos the unusual art form called Trabajo Rustico.

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Jack Morgan
Dionicio Rodriguez's walk bridge at the north end of Brackenridge Park

"He worked with a group of gentlemen there in Mexico City doing Trabajo Rustico,” he said. “It is just imitating stone, wood, sometimes steel in concrete.”

Trabajo Rustico translates roughly as rustic work. Rodriguez was quite ambitious, and though his American dream began in Mexico's capital city, it took root and thrived here in San Antonio.

"He decided to leave Mexico City to find work in the United States. I would consider him, probably in this sort of work, the most important person that did this," Cortes said.

Rodriguez’s Trabajo Rustico pieces are all over town: that incredible bus stop just north of the H-E-B on Broadway. The massive Torii Gate leading into the Japanese Tea Garden. The one-of-a-kind walk bridge at Brackenridge Park's north end. And dozens more.

"San Antonio has quite a bit of it. There are other places that have a lot of his work, too,” he said.

You can find Dionicio Rodriguez works in eight states across the country, including massive installations in a North Little Rock park and a Memphis cemetery.

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Jack Morgan
Damaged palapa begins to be lifted

But this Monday Cortes and five workers, two trucks and a crane had serious work to do to begin to fix what that pecan tree did. And doing so was going to be quite complicated.

"We're going to move a palapa that was damaged by a tree here at Brackenridge Park," he said.

Rather than work on the palapa at the zoo site for several weeks, Cortes decided to load the approximately 12,000 pound concrete and rebar structure, and haul it to his outdoor studio in Southtown.

To free it and ready it for removal required weeks of digging out its foundation, releasing it from where it sat.

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Jack Morgan
Palapa transported down St. Mary's, interestingly, under the Pecan Street Sign.

"I think we've got it loose all the way around. We didn't want to destabilize it. When we start to move it, we'll know more," he said.

A series of 4-by-6 wooden planks had been strapped to key parts of the palapa multiple times with protective carpet scraps bound to critical surfaces. Heavy duty spreader bars were positioned to keep cabling from damaging the palapa.

"So we're just waiting to add a little more bracing to those four-by-sixes there," he said.

Using extreme care is a wise thing, as this piece has its roots deep in Texas history.

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Jack Morgan
Carlos and worker setting palapa down at his outdoor studio

Pictures provided by the Institute of Texan Cultures show a palapa in Alamo Plaza in 1927. Carlos has been examining those shots carefully, and noted something about the palapa he's moving today.

"Underneath this layer of finished detail work, there is a complete detail of a of another palapa," he said.

In short, there are two different layers to this palapa: a basic original, and then a highly detailed outer layer. He thinks Rodriguez re-used the basic palapa, and built an entirely new one over it.

Cortes said it’s almost like an “underpainting.”

The palapa at the traffic circle outside the zoo had been moved there at some point, but no one has been able to nail down when, or where it came from.

After examining the structure through archival pictures, and seeing the second palapa underneath the outer skin, Cortes has concluded that the mystery of what happened to the Alamo Plaza palapa has been solved.

The question about where the palapa had come from was solved: this is that palapa.

"Yeah, that's. An interesting part of it, definitely. This one has been answered," he said.

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1927 picture of the palapa in Alamo Plaza, with Menger Hotel in the background

Back at the site, all the straps were tightened, checked, re-checked and triple-checked, and the crane began the lift. A tense few minutes passed as the palapa ascended, then was swung 40 feet to the flatbed truck. Wood blocks were placed beneath its irregular bottom surface, then a dozen plus straps ratcheted tight to keep it from shaking on the ride over to Cortes's open-air studio.

The 5-mile drive down St. Mary's Street went without a hitch, as did its unloading, again with the crane. Cortes expressed relief.

“I was a little nervous, but, you know, I always kind of overthink things,” he said. “I over-engineer things, but we strapped that thing down well and it didn't move."

Cortes will add a structure to its bottom that will have lifting points to ease the process in its return trip to the zoo. Helping on the project was Cortes's son Cordero, who is learning Trabajo Rustico from his father, thus making a fourth generation working in the art. Cortes speculated on how those lifting points could help later on.

"In the future, maybe the grandson or the great grandson will move it if it ever has to be moved again. If they have to, it'll be there for them to move it," he said.

And so one generation hands off the skills to the next in this time-honored craft.