Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Aztec Theater's extreme makeover

by Adolfo Pesquera
(originally published March 24, 2006 in the San Antonio Express-News


Surrounding the great chandelier of the Grand Lobby of the Aztec on the River, the stone faces of Xochitl, the Mesoamerican guide, will come to life in eight days to tell modern mortals of ancient mysteries.

As dazzling as a Las Vegas multimedia light show, the laser and thunder magic of Canadian-based Science North heralds the re-emergence of the 80-year-old Aztec.

This is more than an opulently restored landmark. In its second incarnation, the Aztec has the goods to be a major tourist destination with a culturally resonant theme and a rich personal history that includes the grandiose vision of a Belgian farmer.

A 483-seat auditorium with a giant Iwerks Extreme Screen is the main event. But the multimillion-dollar renovation itself and a growing list of theme-appropriate tenants add to the gilded theater's allure.

Three restaurants and two boutique shops are under contract. The state of Durango, Mexico, is opening a trade office and professionals are booking office space. With river and street levels and five upper floors to fill, the Aztec has the potential to be a smaller anchor on the west end of the River Walk the way Rivercenter with its competing IMAX Theater anchors the east end.

With its giant screen and surround-sound system, the Aztec will show the same kind of three-dimensional films and high-impact outdoor adventure movies that IMAX offers.

Originally constructed with authentic reproductions of Aztec and Mayan petroglyphs, statuary and funeral urns, the 1920s picture house will be home to the first U.S. retail location for Oro de Monte Alban.

Located at the river level, this Oaxacan-based company makes jewelry certified by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History as authentic pre-Columbian reproductions.

"Our mission is not only to sell jewelry, but also to expand our culture," company spokeswoman Georgina Cárdenas said. "We were looking for the right place in the United States for 21/2 years. This is the perfect place."

Euro-Alamo Management Inc., the developer, is bringing Austin-based Iron Cactus Mexican Grill and Margarita Bar to its River Walk entrance. Leasing is brisk in the 100,000-square-foot building; about 42,440 square feet are dedicated to office and retail.

Megan Stendebach, the Aztec's marketing director, is blanketing the hospitality industry. There are back-scratching deals to be made.

"We're building a boat ramp," Stendebach said. "We are in negotiations with Rio San Antonio Cruises about them leasing space here to sell boat ride tickets."

The Mayan Revival palace first opened in 1926 to the pomp of a 26-piece orchestra and Aztec chorus girls. The first day drew 3,000 people. But by the 1970s the Aztec was in disrepair and struggling; remodeled into a multiplex, its architectural beauty was hidden. It closed in 1989.

Saving the Aztec from ruin was the inspiration of Theodore Bracht, a Belgian multimillionaire who had no experience with commercial real estate development. Bracht describes himself as a farmer who mostly tends the family business; he owns palm oil, tea, rubber and other cash crop plantations on nearly every continent.

Friends who'd visited during the dark years of the real estate crash in the early 1990s introduced Bracht to San Antonio. His ears perked up from enthusiastic stories of great bargains to be had. He came and bought, including the Alamo National Building in 1991.

He formed Euro-Alamo Management to take care of his local investments and became a regular visitor. Looking across the street from Alamo National, he wondered why no one showed interest in the Aztec, a grimy, lackluster structure.

During a February gala preview, Bracht told his guests how he walked through the dark, tomblike theater. The dusty faces of the corn goddesses had lost their fresh colors, their eyes no longer glowed red, and they seemed to be crying out to him, he said.

He bought it in 1998, then collaborated with neighboring landowners and the city to create river-level access. He persisted through years of painstaking and expensive historic preservation phases.

In 2004, he sold the Alamo National to Drury Southwest Inc. to complete the project. That deal that included a $9 million loan and a partnership agreement; Drury brought its construction expertise to the Aztec.

It was nothing like farming, Bracht noted: "It was a major new development in my life."

The Aztec is Bracht's playground. He won't discuss total cost and the checks still are being written, but Bracht spared no expense and had great fun with it. He bought a 1931 Mighty Wurlitzer organ console, one of only three Waterfall-style consoles ever made by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Co. It was connected to a 1,700-pipe and percussion system bought from Oral Roberts University, and reconditioning included computer controls.

Giant serpents covered in gold and copper leaf provide the facade to the organ lofts, which are on both sides of the fire screen -- known by old-timers for its panoramic painting of Montezuma meeting Hernán Cortez in 1519.

Ted Voss, 51, is the grandson of Theo Voss, the German immigrant who at age 28 was tasked with building a steel and glass chandelier that is estimated to weigh more than 2,500 pounds.

"The goal was to make it in 30 days and 30 nights," Voss said.

Voss, heir to the family business, was asked to take down the Aztec chandelier and restore it. Voss cut it in two, the same way his grandfather did, to get it to his shop. He ripped out a spaghetti heap of wiring with woven insulation that turned to dust when touched. There were 278 light bulbs and bulb sockets to replace.

"It's all riveted and screwed together," Voss said. "It was made before the days of welding."

Bracht would visit Voss and check on progress. Globetrotter that he is, he always found time to keep up with the Aztec. Farmer that he is, he describes micromanagement with a French rancher's colloquialism.

"It is the eye of the owner, that makes the calf fat," Bracht said.

One of the entrepreneurs to discover Bracht and his project is James Beswick, a Londoner who toured the United States last year looking for a place to open a restaurant. He settled on Charles Court, opposite the Hotel Contessa, where he soon will open Drink, a coffee bar by day and wine bar by night.

But one day Beswick and his wife wandered through the scaffolding at the Aztec and took a peek inside.

"The first thing we said was, 'Wow, we want to be a part of this,"' Beswick said.

Opposite Bracht's mechanical room show, Beswick's Happy Bean will open the same week as the Aztec. He also leased a street-level space with access from Commerce Street and inside the theater. By early July, it will open as Café Cubana.

"We're about something entertaining, something with relevance that will initiate thought," Beswick said.

Bracht couldn't agree more.

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