A tree story

Aztec Center sycamore tree

by Hannah Beausang

co-written by Luke Henning

On March 7, the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union officially opened its doors to the San Diego State community just as its predecessor, Aztec Center, did almost half a century earlier.

In many ways the student union is a reimagining of the building that once stood in its place. Along with housing Associated Students, the student union has the iconic bowling alley and food options of Aztec Center.

Despite all these similarities, one feature is noticeably absent from the student union: the California sycamore tree that once sat in the heart of Aztec Center.

The tree was donated to the school by the Alvarado Medical Center in 1967. The tree 35 feet tall, weighed 25 tons at the time it was given to the school and was estimated to be about 40 years old. It was valued at about $5,000 dollars and was expected to live about a hundred years.

The tree was driven up College Avenue on a flatbed truck and was hoisted into place with a 60-ton crane before the east and west sections of Aztec Center were constructed, according to A.S. records.

Landscape architect Joseph Yamada, who supervised the transplanting of the tree, predicted the tree’s legacy.

“That sycamore will be here as long as the building,” Yamada said when the tree was brought to campus.

Aztec Center, SDSU’s original student union that opened in 1968, was designed so that most of the rooms would face the tree. It grew to have multiple trunks, encompassing much of the courtyard with its shade.

“It had seven trunks and was fairly spectacular to look at,” Anthropology Chair Seth Mallios said. “It was a great shady meeting spot; the ombudsman used to eat his brown-bag lunch under the tree and meet with students. He felt it was the nicest spot on campus, and would encourage students to speak honesty and freely about their concerns.”

Mallios said the California sycamore is native to San Diego and can be found in the canyons near campus.

Tommy Bradeen, who worked for the campus’ Physical Plant for more than half a century, told Mallios the sycamore had been transplanted twice. Bradeen said the tree was originally in the path of Highway I-8, which was constructed between 1947 and 1950. The tree was first moved to the Alvarado Medical Center, and then to its permanent home at Aztec Center.

After the relocation process, the tree went through shock and began sprouting irregular leaves and losing leaves multiple times a year, according to The Daily Aztec archives. However, the tree survived and continued to grow.

In 2003, a professional arborist’s report revealed that the tree’s roots were interfering with the structure of Aztec Center, according to The Daily Aztec archives.

SDSU’s former graduate manager Harvey Goodfriend advocated the preservation of the tree despite its potential to harm the center’s structure. Upon hearing that the university was contemplating removing the tree, he said he would chain himself to the sycamore along with the architect and the landscape architect to halt the removal process, Mallios said.

The university explored many options before deciding the tree’s fate. The Daily Aztec’s stories from that time explain that a third relocation was considered. However, the costly and tedious endeavor would have taken more than two years to complete since the root system would have to be removed without inflicting damage.

In 2008, as plans for the building that would become the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union were nearing their final stages, it was discovered that the tree was dying, A.S. Vice President of External Relations Javier Gomez said.

For the next two years there was an ongoing debate within A.S. about the tree’s fate. It was eventually decided that some of the tree would be used to create an art piece to be displayed in the A.S. Council Chambers within the student union, Gomez said.

“Since we knew we couldn’t save the tree, we decided to see if we could take pieces of the tree and keep it alive in another way,” Gomez said.

A.S. commissioned several artists to create the art piece from a section of the tree’s trunk. Gomez said he expects the art piece to be completed before the end of the semester.

A piece of the tree will also live on through a leaf that was placed within a time capsule in the walls of the student union, last year’s A.S. Executive Vice President Channelle McNutt said.

“When a future generation finds the capsule in the walls of the union, they’ll be able to see what SDSU once was,” McNutt said.

The capsule also includes original sketches of Aztec Center, a Red ID and a USB drive full of videos and information about SDSU.

The tree’s long life ended on June 1, 2011 when demolition began on Aztec Center. Large pieces of the tree were removed before the work began on the building around it.

Now two and a half years later, the student union provides students shade where the tree once stood. Though the tree and many of Aztec Center’s distinctive features are now gone, the new student union stands as a monument to the community that helped build it.

“The union is a true testament to the power of the students,” McNutt said. “It shows what happens when generations of students work together.”

Photo from The Daily Aztec archives