Brackenridge Park: ‘Is it still a postcard place?’

Colonel George W. Brackenridge, one of our oldest, wealthiest and most prominent and respected citizens, has tendered to the city a handsome gift in the form of a 200-acre tract of land near the head of the river, to be dedicated to the use of a public park. Colonel Brackenridge acquired the property some twenty years ago, but beyond enclosing it with a wire fence, has never improved it.

The tract is heavily wooded and susceptible, at considerable outlay, of being transformed into a beautiful and inviting “breathing spot.” Not unnaturally, Col. Brackenridge has been the recipient of many complimentary utterances….

San Antonio Light, November 12, 1899, page 2

In Brackenridge Park, San Antonio has one of those places nature made beautiful. Its two hundred odd acres are wild and picturesque, a primeval forest which has not been spoiled by the hand of man…. you will find a beautiful natural woodland with winding driveways overarched with splendid live oak trees festooned with hanging moss. Here in captivity live elk and deer and buffalo. Here the squirrels chatter at play, and the wild beauty of this spot makes it one of the most attractive parks in America. San Antonio, Chamber of Commerce Booklet, 1909

Well past her century mark, it is not surprising that Brackenridge Park is overdue for a facelift. Recognizing this, San Antonio City Council unanimously approved a master plan for the park on March 2, and approval of funds via the upcoming bond election on May 6 will jumpstart the plan’s implementation.

A day-long summit presented by the Cultural Landscape Foundation and Brackenridge Park Conservancy on March 3 represented a thoughtful approach to the ongoing planning process for the park. Panels focused on what could be learned from other recent improvement projects in San Antonio as well as park projects in other cities.

Kinder Baumgardner, managing principal of SWA in Houston, pointed out that the beauty of Brackenridge Park often was spotlighted on postcards visitors would purchase to send home. But, he posed, “Is it still a postcard place?”

Of course, once home, that sent me scrambling though my folder to look, because, as you can tell by the masthead of my blog, I like old postcards.

Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation recognized the Japanese Tea Garden as the first quarry in the United States to be transformed into a garden.

The answer to Baumgardner’s questions is parts of the parkland and its extensions are postcard-worthy: the Japanese Tea Garden, the San Antonio Zoo, the Witte Museum, the San Antonio Botanical Garden. But shouldn’t all the remaining 115 acres of admission-free parkland be equally as photogenic?

As an introduction to the first session, Charles A. Birnbaum, president and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, pointed out that some of this “vacant” space has been plagued by a “plop and drop” approach to developing the parkland without enough planning focused on the importance of visual and spatial relationships. He stressed that “edge matters.” The park needs to be without borders, “porous.”

Speaker after speaker echoed this. Andres Andujar, CEO of Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation, noted the importance of “connectivity and porosity.” As the park is hemmed in by its neighbors and proximity to Highway 281, Douglas Reed, principal of Reed Hilderbrand, was among those looking eastward to create connections. The edges of Brackenridge Park should be opened up from Broadway.

Opening up the parkland is a major planning challenge facing the Brackenridge Park Conservancy because the blockage originated at the time of the original gift. The 1899 article about Brackenridge’s gift quoted above continued:

These kindly utterances are probably deserved, I assume, but doubly so would they have been, to my mind, had the colonel’s generosity gone but a step further and alienated the entire tract to the city, instead of reserving a strip of 300 feet wide, running the entire length of River avenue (now Broadway). Of course this strip can be platted into most beautiful and eligible residence lots, and by reason of their proximity to the park grounds, be made to net an aggregate probably in excess of the present value of the entire tract. But, I am not one to “look a gift horse in the mouth.”

San Antonio Light, November 12, 1899, page 2

With its origins at the Blue Hole on the property of the Sisters of Incarnate Word, the San Antonio River runs through the park. Archaeological studies trace man’s history in proximity to the river back 11,000 years ago. Birnbaum observed this contributes to making the parkland a suitable portal for viewing the story of water in San Antonio. With its early acequias and later waterworks supplying the city’s needs, Birnbaum believes redevelopment of the historic park has the potential to qualify it for designation as a national heritage area.

The city at times abused and overused that source of water. Water rights remained privately held after the donation of the parkland, with water pumped up to the area of today’s Botanical Gardens for distribution to the city. Artesian wells of the breweries downstream also tapped into the river’s underground resources for replenishment. Later flood control efforts led to inartistic intrusions in the park, such as the concrete Catalpa Pershing channel.

Still, the park has always been regarded as a resort for citizens.

Gina Ford, principal of Sasaki, identified the river as the building block for a cohesive network in the park and the surrounding areas. While the natural ecosystem should be cultivated, “the life of a city and the life of a river should interact.” Opportunities for engagement with the river should be fostered.

Everybody, young and old, rich and poor, the lame, the halt – even the blind – as well as the robust, athletic swimmers, have made a trysting place of Lambert Beach in Brackenridge Park. San Antonio Light, August 29, 1915

Returning to the historical levels of interaction people enjoyed with the water is complicated by the behavior of the park’s users. Before even the once-popular paddleboats can be reintroduced, people must stop feeding the resident ducks, said Suzanne Scott, executive director of the San Antonio River Authority. She has waged war against duck dooty for years, but people continue to bring their stale loaves of bread to the river’s banks. The availability of an unnatural abundance of food leads to an unnaturally high population of floating fowl fouling the water. This translates into an e coli count making the river too dangerous for humans to come in direct contact its waters.

Brackenridge Park remains “the people’s park,” but the implementation of its master plan promises to enrich our experiences in this precious urban oasis.

 

P.S. Don’t forget a few old souls from the past who might still haunt the park. I know, I am the only person trying to populate the park with ghosts, but here are some of my nominations: Helen Madarasz, Ernest Richter, Otto Goetz, Sam Wigodsky, William Berger and Martha Mansfield.

Might Helen Madarasz haunt Brackenridge Park?

Biannual roundup of an ad-free blog

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This blogger has blogged so prolifically she has used up all the free space WordPress has to offer. This is good news for you because ads will no longer pop up at the bottom of posts, but it was bad news for me because I actually have to pay a small amount to engage in this form of therapy. I’m not complaining though, because I have never understood how WordPress can afford to offer this service at no charge. I’m grateful for enjoying a free ride for several years.

This list represents the most-read posts during the past 12 months, and interest in the Alamo and its plaza rose to the top once again. But thanks for continuing to give me the freedom to wander around the globe and send postcards back to San Antonio as well.

The numbers in parentheses represent the rankings from six months ago:

  1. Don’t Let Battle Zealots Overrun the Crockett Block, 2016
  2. The Madarasz Murder Mystery: Might Helen Haunt Brackenridge Park?, 2012 (1)
  3. Take pleasure in little unauthorized treasures along the River Walk before they vanish, 2015 (7)
  4. How would you feel about the Alamo with a crewcut?, 2011 (3)
  5. Please put this song on Tony’s pony and make it ride away, 2010 (5)
  6. Postcards from San Antonio a Century Ago, 2016
  7. Playspace of Yanaguana Garden bursts into bloom October 2, 2015 (8)
  8. Postcard from Madrid, Spain: Flavorful food memories, 2015
  9. Postcard from Puebla, Mexico: An unlikely trio of favorite restaurants, 2015
  10. Reviving Dia de los Muertos, 2015
  11. Postcard from Sintra, Portugal: Masonic mysteries surface at Quinta da Regaleira, 2014
  12. Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Settling into La Biznaga, 2016

Thanks for dropping by every once in a while. Love hearing your feedback.

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Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: Museums serving history in manageable bites

The landmarks housing Ferrara’s museums are worth visiting for their historical and architectural merits alone. Their content provides glimpses of Italy’s past in small, easy-to-digest bites.

These photographs are from Casa Romei, built in 1445 by Giovanni Romei who married Polissena of the ruling Este family, and the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, a 16th-century palace primarily showcasing artifacts from the Greco-Etruscan seaport of Spina.

My take-away lesson? The true definition of symposium gleaned from text in the archeological museum.

During all those years of working with nonprofits, why did no one ever fill me in on the proper recipe for conducting a symposium? Comfortable couches for reclining; snacks within easy reach; and, most importantly, free-flowing wine generating free-flowing conversation and exchange of ideas. I would have attended more and staged more if I had only known.

Although, maybe those years of gatherings in the over-sized corner booth of the Kangaroo Court on the River Walk were just that.

Let Paseo del Rio lore be altered henceforth. The almost mandatory, after-work, boozy gatherings of River Rats were not mere happy hours; they were lofty downtown symposia.

Dionysus certainly would hoist a glass in approval. And, as I learned this in Italy, Bacchus would as well.