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Published on March 2, 2021

Memories are made of this

Dionicio Rodriguez’s historical concrete art adorns San Bernard River residences

By Jan Edwards
The Bulletin

Situated on the rural San Bernard River residences of two Sweeny neighbors, two pieces of very unusual “lawn furniture” were, it seems, magically created.

At first glance, they appear to be a well-built wooden palapa table on Hardy and Sherry Herrington’s property and a gazebo on the property of their close neighbors, Keith and Stephanie Cunningham.

But, take a closer look – they are both made of concrete. Since their commission in 1926, these pieces have survived hurricanes, floods and anything Mother Nature has thrown at them, showing minimal wear. Yet, they remain, quietly testifying to the quality of their art.

Unless you know the owners of the properties, you will probably never see them since they are on private property, but through the generosity of the owners and my photographs, the story of this art can be shared.

Thanks to years of research by Patsy Light and Maria Pfeiffer, these two Rodriguez pieces and others around Texas were registered in the National Register of Historical Places by 2004, when the previous title holder owned the property.

Both the palapa table and chair and the gazebo are considered some of Rodriguez’s best pieces for revealing the artist’s attention to detail. When working with the cement, he created what looks like growth rings, bark, knot holes, and even wormholes. The palapa roofs of both pieces show detailed thatching.

Both the palapa table and the gazebo were commissioned in 1926 by James Richard Marmion, a San Antonio native who was involved in real estate, buying railroad rights-of-way for the New York and Texas Land Company Limited.

Although he had moved to Houston by this time, he traveled through East Texas towns and to Simaloa, Mexico, where he owned a silver and gold mine.

In 1910, Marmion purchased 360 acres of land on the San Bernard River outside Sweeny, Texas, for his family’s private retreat.

Research shows that Marmion’s daughter-in-law remembers that he was fascinated by Rodriguez’s secrecy in applying the colors to the artwork.

But to understand the magic that Rodriguez created in Sweeny, one needs to understand a little more about the artist and the medium in which he worked.

Dionicio Rodriguez (1891 – 1955) is known as one of America’s foremost faux bois (false wood in French), or trabajo rustic (rustic work in Spanish), sculptors. He created works of art that looked like wood but were made from reinforced concrete.

Rodriguez was born in Toluca, Mexico; his birth date is listed as April 11, 1891. He had little formal education and worked with his father as a bricklayer. At 15, he went to work with Italian artist Robles Hill at a foundry in Mexico that specialized in imitation rocks, caverns, ruins and ancient buildings.

Some of Rodriguez’s earliest work can be seen at Chapultepec Castle and the President’s Palace in Mexico City.

Due to the Mexican Revolution in 1910, he moved to Laredo, Texas, and worked with fellow artist, Maximo Cortes, casting concrete embellishments for a school.

Cortes encouraged Rodriguez to move to San Antonio, Texas, where a rock being quarried made the best concrete. Rodriguez moved to San Antonio around 1924 to work on the house of Aureliano Urrutia, a prominent physician. Urrutia introduced Rodriguez to Charles Baumberger, president of the San Antonio Portland Cement Company, which was later named Alamo Concrete Company.

Baumberger became an important patron and commissioned Rodriguez to create several faux bois works in the city. Some examples of Rodriguez’s existing works in Brackenridge Park are the pedestrian bridge, circa 1926, a canopied table and bench, fountains, benches, tree stump planters, trash receptacles and lamp posts. There are numerous other pieces of his faux bois works in San Antonio.

Most scholars consider Rodriguez the most skilled practitioner of his craft. He developed a secret process to create art from reinforced concrete. He never worked from a sketch or model. He began with making a good base for concrete and fashioned metal framework for the form he was creating. He would fill the form with rocks and rip rap and sculpt the final piece from a special concrete mixture that contained no sand. He used only his hands, a fork, a spoon, a knife or a twig to sculpt the work. He tinted the still-wet concrete with chemicals (copperas, sulfuric acid, muriatic acid, iron oxide, saltpeter and lampblack) to get the colors he needed. His secret method of tinting the concrete went with him to his grave.

He received commissions across Texas in the late 1920s and into the 1940s. In addition to San Antonio and Sweeny, his works can be found in Comfort, Port Arthur, Beaumont, Houston, Longview, Dallas and Castroville, among other Texas cities.

During the 1930s, Rodriguez also worked in other states, including Arkansas, Washington D.C., Tennessee, Maryland, Michigan, New York, New Mexico and Illinois, for more than 30 years. In all that time, he never understood or read a word of English.

It is interesting to note that the artist did most of his work during the Great Depression. He said materials he needed for work were inexpensive and relatively easy to obtain.

After 1942, Rodriguez, who was suffering from failing eyesight and diabetes, found that the demand created by World War II made supplies of steel and concrete increasingly hard to get, and he curtailed his production.

He died December 16, 1955, and he was buried in the San Fernando Cemetery No. 2 in San Antonio. He had no immediate surviving family.

After Marmion sold the 380-acre tract on which the palapa table and gazebo were built, it was split into numerous homesteads and went through a series of owners and deeds.

During those years, Marmion’s camp house and the area around it fell into disrepair, and the art pieces were entirely camouflaged by overgrowth when the previous owner bought it. It wasn’t until she was clearing the land to build her house that the treasures were rediscovered. That set off a whirlwind of discovery, which landed these two pieces in the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

In the meantime, the Cunninghams, who have owned their property since 2005, and the Herringtons, who have owned their property since 2012, are enjoying living with their historic art, keeping Rodriguez’s masterpieces safe to enjoy for the next hundred years.

(Write Jan in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)