Stepping into the Coronado Library at 640 Orange Avenue is a breathtaking experience. As glass doors swing open, visitors enter an open, cool space flooded with bright light and soothing colors. The arresting mural behind the main desk draws the eye upward and recalls scenes from a simpler time. Meanwhile, to the left, the cheerful Wizard of Oz murals bring smiles at the entrance to the Children’s Library.
What is the story behind these large pieces of artwork in the Coronado Library? Where did they come from, and how long have they been here? Who painted them, and why?
Postcard of La Avenida Cafe interior circa 1950
“EL DIA DEL MERCADO” MURAL
The 48-foot-long mural over the front desk is called “El Dia del Mercado,” and the painting has a long history in Coronado. The artist, Alfredo Ramos Martinez, was a Mexican muralist who had studied art in Paris during the early 20th century. Martinez directed the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and launched an open air school of painting. His work is strongly influenced by the indigenous art themes of Mexico.
In 1929, the Martinez family traveled to the U.S. and eventually settled in Los Angeles in 1930, where Ramos Martinez reestablished his reputation by painting murals for members of the Hollywood film community, including Alfred Hitchcock. Eventually he was commissioned to paint the two murals for La Avenida Cafe in Coronado: “El Dia del Mercado” and “Canasta de Flores,” in addition to two other murals that no longer exist.
“The La Avenida Cafe murals in Coronado are considered some of Ramos Martinez’s major works,” says Christian Esquevin, Director of the Coronado Library, in his informative booklet about the paintings. “[The murals were] executed during his full maturity and using his favored themes and subjects, such as fruits, flowers, rural Mexico, and women going to market, depicted at a time now long gone.”
La Avenida Cafe was originally built in 1938 at 1301 Orange Ave, where the restaurant Bistro d’Asia is currently located. For $1,000, Martinez painted the main mural in the dining room opposite the front doors. The murals were frescoes, painted onto smooth fresco plaster with tempera as paint. “The reason they have cutouts was because of the doorways in the restaurants,” explains Esquevin. “One was to a kitchen, another one was to another room. The tables actually went right up against the mural.”
La Avenida Cafe interior in 1955
The La Avenida Cafe became a favorite dining spot for visitors to Coronado and the Hotel del Coronado, and the murals themselves also attracted attention and admirers. Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Errol Flynn dined at La Avenida Cafe frequently while staying at the Del.
“The place was a really popular restaurant for many years,” continues Esquevin. “But eventually it had passed its prime, changed owners, and finally closed down. They were going to tear down the building, including the murals, so there was an outcry in Coronado about what was going to happen to the murals. The last owners of the building said, ‘OK, we’ll save the murals and donate them to the city.’
“[The mural] was offered to the library by Gus and Barbara Theberge, owners of the La Avenida. I tried to find a place for it, but that was before [the 2005] expansion. The mural is 40 feet long, and I didn’t have a place to put it. I had to turn it down, and so the Theberges gave it to the City of Coronado, who then put it in storage. It was cut down into five panels.”
In 1995, the library began to plan for this expansion, which Christian Esquevin has mentioned more extensively in this personal interview. Construction began in 2003, and the expansion completed in 2005. “When we were doing our expansion,” Christian says, “I said, ‘Well, we have to find a place to put this mural!'”
From 1998 on, the library worked to receive approval from the Coronado City Council to install the mural in the library and also to receive funding for its restoration. The Council gave approval in 2001, and in 2003 Nathan Zakheim and Associates began an extensive restoration process in an old airport hangar outside Los Angeles. The restoration took over a year to complete thanks to extensive damage from restaurant remodels, the addition of electrical outlet covers, a fire in 1981, and water damage from a hole in La Avenida Cafe’s ceiling.
Back at the library, the current lobby was added to the building during the restoration, and it was decided that the “El Dia del Mercado” would hang on the wall over the main desk, a wall that had once been the exterior of the library. A new glass curtain wall would provide views of the mural even at night. The construction team installed a steel frame over the library desk with neoproene rubber to accommodate jarring seismic vibrations. Piece by piece, Nathan Zakheim and his crew fit the mural into the frame.
On June 10, 2005, the Library opened its doors to reveal this magnificent piece of Coronado history on display once again for all to enjoy.
The history of this painting is not as well-known as the “El Dia de Mercado” mural. In fact, it was found only by accident under layers of wallpaper and paint in the old La Avenida Cafe. Just like the larger mural, Nathan Zakheim performed extensive restoration, after which the painting remained private property.
In October 2001, the Library Director learned that “Canasta de Flores” was being put up for sale in Los Angeles. The Coronado Friends of the Library offered to buy the painting for the library. “That was a big deal for them,” Christian Esquevin says, smiling at the memory. “They went on a field trip up there to buy it.” The Friends purchased it for $125,000.
Today the beautiful “Canasta de Flores” hangs in the Adult Reading Room of the Coronado Library, suspended to eye level in the middle of the room for all to see and enjoy. Some readers might recognize a small replica of the painting on their library cards!
THE WIZARD OF OZ CHILDREN’S LIBRARY PORTAL
When the Library planning committee discussed the 2005 expansion, they decided they wanted double the size of the Children’s Library. “We also wanted to have a design feature that said, ‘This is the opening of the Children’s library,”” says Christian Esquevin. “We wanted a visual cue that you are entering the Children’s Library, something kind of special. ‘An entry portal,’ we called it.”
The Library planning committee, though, didn’t want the design feature to be solid and break up the flow of the spacious, airy front lobby. Eventually a city council member suggested the feature could go on glass panels, which met with widespread approval.
Ellenjoy Weber (Senior Librarian of Children’s Services) and Christian determined they wanted a children’s literature theme. “We both came up with the idea, ‘Let’s do something related to The Wizard of Oz and Frank Baum,'” says Christian. Besides the universal popularity of the story and the film, Baum himself spent many winters in Coronado and wrote several of his Oz books during his visits.
The next step was to find an artist who would be able to capture the story with enough detail that it could be expanded onto glass panels. “We had at the time a local San Diego artist that used to do the graphics for the children’s summer reading program,” Christian said. “Ellenjoy and I had worked with her; her name is Brenda Smith. We both knew she could do illustrations that were compatible with children’s picture book-style art, including animals and children.”
They now had three good ideas: an artist, a glass panel entry portal, and The Wizard of Oz. “After that we had the challenges!” laughs Christian. “Glass is heavy. How could the art be transferred onto the glass? How could the panels be suspended it so that they were rigid and wouldn’t fly off like the house in the tornado?”
The first big challenge was to find a company to print art on glass. “It turned out it was the first time a technique was developed to do that,” says Christian. “Essentially they printed the way you do lithography with giant presses on panels of glass.” The glass was treated to filter out UV light and resist scratches. The largest panel, which includes the Emerald City scene, measured 92 inches by 60 inches.
The second big challenge was the structural engineering required to suspend the panels. Through extensive research and collaboration with structural engineers, a system was developed for the panels to hang from a steel I-beam welded to structural steel columns. “Then,” says Christian, “we got to the eleventh hour and the structural engineer determined that in the event of an earthquake, this thing is not going to hold!” Unfortunately, this meant that the portal would not be ready for the Library’s grand opening in June 2005.
“We opened the library and the portal was still not up,” Christian says. “Finally we had to close the library, dig up the travertine tile we just put down, put in the steel I-beam, put up plywood all over the place.” Construction had to be done in the early hours before the library opened to the public each day. The project also required additional funding, donors, and support of the Friends of the Library.
But the end was in sight. When the panels were at last installed, the Library held an unveiling ceremony on November 3, 2006. Finally everyone — donors, board members, staff, architects — could view their accomplishment, including the artist Brenda Smith, who was overwhelmed at the beauty of the final product.
The Wizard of Oz portal was completed in the 150th year since Frank L Baum’s birth. Children and adults pause to admire it, recalling scenes from the book and film as well as from their imaginations. Just like the rest of the library, the artwork within it is a delight and inspiration to the community of Coronado.
Many thanks to Christian Esquevin, Director of the Coronado Library, for his assistance with this article through an interview, photographs, and his informative booklets entitled The Story of The Wizard of Oz Children’s Library Portal and The Story of the Ramos Martinez Murals and the La Avenida Cafe. For more information, look for these free booklets at the library’s front desk.
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