After traveling the skies above Brackenridge Park for 35 years, two Swiss-made cable gondolas sat in a parking lot behind San Antonio International Airport, their brightly painted aluminum bodies dented by the kicking feet of countless passengers and faded to a nondescript beige.
“It looked like Swiss cheese without the holes,” said Janessa Zebrowski, 27, who studies auto collision and refinishing at St. Philip’s College.
“We were reluctant to work on them because they were in such bad shape,” said her classmate, Aaron Gurrola, 28.
Three semesters of meticulous restoration later, Zebrowski and Gurrola stood Tuesday with other St. Philip’s students to deliver the cable cars — now hot pink and bright blue — to the Hemisfair district’s Yanaguana Garden.
“It came out pretty good,” said Gary Boyd, senior project manager for Hemisfair, before helping move the 200-pound gondolas from the work room at the college’s Southwest Campus into the bed of a Chevrolet Silverado to be carted, one at a time, to their new home.
They will remain grounded, as they have since a contract to operate them expired in 1999, with upgrades needed to meet safety standards deemed too costly. Instead, they’ll be fitted with solar-powered lights and become historically significant gazebos where children and adults can read, eat or drink coffee, Hemisfair officials said.
“It’s a really fun, playful way to upcycle these gondolas,” said Drew Hicks, spokesman for the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corp. “There’s just a great story to them and people have fond memories of them. It’s better than people forgetting their history.”
The gondolas belonged to a larger fleet manufactured shortly before their 1964 installation in Brackenridge Park, where they ran on a skyway to the San Antonio Zoo and the Sunken Gardens. Joe De La Cruz, 58, a St. Philip’s student who helped restore the gondolas, remembered riding them excitedly as a child and more nervously as a young adult.
“You could see the whole city,” De La Cruz said. “You were way up there.”
The full set of cable cars has scattered. The zoo sold 14 of them in 2002, most to local developer Mitch Meyer. They are similar to gondolas installed for a ride at HemisFair ‘68, but those cars moved on to another world’s fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1982, and then ended up in Poland, Boyd said.
A redeveloping Hemisfair bought its two gondolas from Meyer, and the money to restore them came from descendants of William and Augusta Hermann, who once lived on land that is now part of the downtown district. The St. Philip’s auto collision refinishing program was picked for the job because Hemisfair wanted to keep the project local, Hicks said.
“We want to stay very tied and connected to the community,” Hicks said. “It was a natural fit. St. Philip’s College is our neighbor.”
Hemisfair pitched the project to Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie. About 40 students from auto body and refinishing classes did the work, said Daniel Salas, director of the collision and refinishing technology program.
They took the gondolas apart, hammered out the dents, added body filler to retain the shape, sanded, installed a vinyl coating to the interior, then painted. It was more tedious than working on hail-damaged cars because the metal is more malleable and had to be preserved, the students said.
“It was kind of like being an artist and working in a museum,” De La Cruz said.
Salas and his students said the project will give them something to remember, especially when they see their work in use in the new Hemisfair district.
“They look really cool now,” Zebrowski said. “It’s nice to think that they’re going to have a place other than just decorating the shop.”
The students said they learned technical skills and teamwork while creating something to be proud of, for the benefit of children.
Zebrowski had a message for those kids.
“Please don’t kick them,” she said.