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?

Convention Center Space ‘Growed Up’

Things sure have changed since the last time I was here. It’s all growed up.

Woodrow Call riding into San Antonio in Lonesome Dove

Anyone who has ever tried to stage anything festive in a meeting room in a Convention Center knows the difficulty of creating atmosphere without spending major amounts to dramatically alter the decor.  On my morning walks, I have discovered that deep under the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center is a new space that is a party waiting to happen.  Planners need only stock the bar and pass the hors d’oeuvres. 

While I concede the room’s Lonesome Dove theme is a bit hokey for a spot in new construction overlooking the manmade water feature linking the Convention Center Lagoon to HemisFair Park, it is so refreshing to see something that doesn’t scream “you are about to be imprisoned in a stark meeting room for several miserable hours.” 

There was no one to let me in for a closer look at 7 a.m., but the over-sized prints on the wall appeared to be copies of Bill Wittliff’s photos from the film.  Cowhide rugs are scattered on the carpeting, overstuffed chairs beckon people to sit a spell and horn chairs are scattered throughout  (Don’t think this photo from the city’s website actually does it justice.  Maybe it was taken before all the furniture arrived and artwork hung.).  As far as Convention Center space goes, this place actually looks downright hospitable.

Currently, the river level of the adjacent Lila Cockrell Theatre is masked for a fashion makeover.  The pleasant surprise of Lonesome Dove makes me eager to see just what is going on under Miz Lila’s skirt as well. 

Update on November 11:  The Lila Cockrell Theater redo complete.

Leave a Lasting Imprint

Their handprints symbolize the mark they made and, for some, continue to make on San Antonio.  The founders of the San Antonio Women’s Pavilion, which opened in time for HemisFair ’68, left their imprints in tiles designed by Ethel Wilson Harris on a back wall of the pavilion designed by architect Cyrus Wagner.  Writing in San Antonio Current, Jessica Ramos described the building:

The 12,000-square-foot, four-level building’s most eye-catching traits include the city’s tradition of masonry infused with ’60s-inpired open spaces, Mexican brick, hand-carved doors by Lynn Ford, and modulated lighting that includes skylights, clerestories, wooden grills, and Martha Mood ceramic fixtures.  One can squeeze into any nook of the building and still have a view of all of its levels.

Grassroots fundraising efforts made the original construction of the pavilion, dedicated to the contributions of the women to the world, possible.  Ramos wrote:

(Sherry Kafka) Wagner and other prominent San Antonio women, including Nellie Connally, wife of Governor John Connally, Edith McAllister, Mary Denman, Patricia Galt Steves, and Bertha Gonzalez, wife of Congressman Henry B., organized a bottom-up campaign with the intention of showcasing women’s achievements in art, science, business, and government.  They hosted coffee parties to finance the exhibition.  One coffee klatch seeded hundreds, and soon, more than 8,000 women from 49 states and 14 countries became members by donating funds — as little as $1 apiece — to build the pavilion.  What began as plans for a temporary exhibition space soon flourished with an organized wave of support.  The word-of-mouth movement attracted other organizations, which donated thousands of dollars in grants to build a permanent structure.

“You have to remember, this was before the women’s movement,” said Wagner, “this was huge.”

Today’s board of directors of the Women’s Pavilion, including Wagner, are resorting to grassroots efforts again to restore the building as part of the city’s revitalization plans for HemisFair Park.

This is late notice for one of the ways you can help this Saturday.  Drop by the AIA’s Center for Architecture at Pearl Brewery any time between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to help cut out bags from recycled convention banners.  According to the Express-News:

Volunteers cut the tote bag and banner patterns, created by local designer and store owner Kathleen Sommers, from the vinyl banners. Those pieces are then delivered to La Fuerza Unida, a sewing cooperative and social justice organization, to be sewn…. Last year, La Fuerza Unida sewed 206 pieces for the Women’s Pavilion.  All the items sold within two hours of the group’s first sale in November.

If it’s too late for you to go tomorrow, mark your calendar for August 21.

The colorful bags and aprons sell from $32 to $46 and represent a great fundraising tool, but, with $12 million to secure for the renovation project, more than that is needed.  So the Women’s Pavilion is looking for helping hands of another kind as well for the Artful Legacy Project.  Each donor of $500 will have a scanned image of her hand and her name engraved into a glass tile.  In collaboration with artists Gini Garcia and Kay Lorraine, the resulting wall installed adjacent to the pavilion will be illuminated at night with fiber optic lights that change colors.

The board of the Women’s Pavilion is a creative and determined one.  Current quotes member Ginger Purdy:   

Before I leave this planet, I am going to bring that building back to life.

P.S.  Don’t forget to bail Gayle out of jail!