Zilker Park: Founded on a fortune made in ice

lone star ice works

Above: Lone Star Ice Works, George H. Berner and H.R. Marks, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, Portal to Texas History

The loss in this climate is enormous and it is probably within bounds to say that at least one sixth of the gross output melts away. The manufacture of tons of ice and its delivery to customers at a cent a pound is one of the novelties of this age, and had you ever hinted such a thing 30 years ago you would have been looked upon as insane.

Austin Statesman, July 17, 1890

Born in 1858 on the banks of the Ohio River in Indiana, Andrew Jackson Zilker started working riverside as a stevedore and cabin boy while young. He stumbled across a copy of Henderson Yoakum’s extensive History of Texas, published in 1846, and began dreaming of Texas. He worked his way via riverboat to New Orleans; earned his way to Texas by driving oxcarts to San Antonio; and arrived in Austin at age 18.

The 50 cents in his pocket, according to numerous accounts, was quickly depleted – half for a bed on the first night and the other half for food. Hunger motivated him to land employment helping to construct the International-Great Northern freight depot and then the Congress Avenue Bridge over the Colorado.

Continue reading “Zilker Park: Founded on a fortune made in ice”

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?

Kersey’s pieces like portable public art you can throw in the dishwasher

To get an idea of the sculptural beauty of coffee mugs crafted by potter Diana Kersey, ride across the Mulberry Street Bridge or the Millrace Bridge leading to the Brackenridge Park Golf Course. Each of these bridges is graced with more than 200 square feet of the artist’s figurative tiles.

At first, I felt silly interviewing someone who recently completed these two major public art installations about coffee mugs, but Kersey put me at ease. Yes, she still loves taking a lump of clay and shaping it into a mug as her potter’s wheel turns.

“Small projects allow me to explore design ideas,” Kersey said. “These small works play into the design elements of larger ones.” Plus, she is never bored because: “No two mugs are exactly alike.”

Gayle Brennan Spencer in San Antonio Taste Magazine, December 2011

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Steve Bennett spotlighted the first bridge Diana Kersey completed on the San Antonio River in a June edition of the San Antonio Express-News:

“The city wanted me to do something on the health of waterways,” Kersey said. “I started thinking about amphibians — you know, if the amphibian life was healthy then the waterway was probably healthy. And in doing my research I learned that the most common toad in this region is the Gulf Coast toad. It’s the one that we all know, that we all run across in our backyards.”

In bas-relief sculptural panels embedded in the bridge’s concrete guardrails above 8-foot sidewalks, Kersey visually tells the story of the life cycle of the toad, from the courting days of Mr. and Mrs. T to strips of frog egg “tape” floating on water to developing tadpoles and “froglets” to the mature toad with the ridges over the eyes and the mouth that turns downward, sort of sadly. The overall effect is a “primordial narrative” like the well-known ape-to-man evolutionary image.

The Millrace Bridge installation was scattered around the tables and floor of her studio when I interviewed Kersey for the story on coffee mugs. The clay since has been glazed and fired to attain striking colors evoking the exuberance of majolica pottery.

Kersey described how she takes clay large-scale in an interview with Gene Elder for Voices of Art Magazine:

I don’t really create ’tiles’ in the traditional sense. I build the panel as one giant piece of clay, and then when it is complete I cut the work up into smaller shapes that can easily be fired, transported and installed. That way the grout lines becomes an important part of the overall design.

Now installed, the panels on the bridge relate to the history of the park and the golf course. Gutzon Borglum, who worked on designs for Mt. Rushmore in his nearby studio, and George Brackenridge, looking a bit dour as one would expect from the man who forbade the consumption of malt beverages on the parkland he donated, are among the relief portraits in clay.

But the story of Queenie the dog stumped me completely? Kersey enlightened me:

Queenie the dog was the beloved dog of Jack O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien was a sportswriter for an early San Antonio paper and a huge fan of golf at Brackenridge. He helped start the Texas Open in the early years. Anyhow, the dog was always by his side and became a bit of a mascot at Old Brack. A portrait of her has hung in the clubhouse for over 60 years and is still there.

Kersey’s mugs are like small slivers of portable public art that you can take home with you – art that can be thrown in the dishwasher. Find Kersey at work in her new studio and showroom downtown in the Atlee Ayers Building at 112 Broadway.