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?

The Madarasz murder mystery: Might Helen haunt Brackenridge Park?

Warning: Copy from newspaper accounts describing violence or demonstrating racial prejudice of the day appears as written.

Cruising through Brackenridge Park at night, park police tell tales of the woman in the long flowing dress holding a basket of roses as she gracefully stoops, tending flower beds near the river. They turn their patrol cars around to shine headlights on the mysterious figure to find her vanished, the only trace of her presence a small pile of freshly plucked weeds.

Some nights, they see another woman silhouetted in the moonlight walking on the river wall by the upper pumphouse or precariously along the highest lip circling the Japanese Tea Garden. Her long dress is ripped off one shoulder, her hair springs wildly from its bun and she wields garden shears in such a threatening fashion they find themselves involuntarily crossing their legs.

These visions are the same, Helen Ujhazy Madarasz. Her ghost has roamed the area for more than a century in search of justice for the men who robbed, raped and killed her, setting her afire to destroy evidence of their crime.

First time you have heard of this ghost?

Okay. I confess. The ghost is a figment of my imagination, percolated in the bubbles of my bath.

But Helen was real. And, if a ghost needs an excuse to lurk in the dark, she certainly has reason to haunt Brackenridge Park.

Born in 1838, Helen Ujhazy was still a child when her idealistic Hungarian father found himself on the side of the underdog as the last fortress fell to the Austrians in 1849. While her father was greeted as a hero upon arrival in New York, according to James Patrick McGuire in The Hungarian Texans, the family’s journey to settle with fellow Hungarian exiles on farmland in New Buda, Iowa, was hard. And, for the first time in their lives, the Ujhazy girls had no servants.

McGuire wrote that Helen adapted quickly:

She was an excellent horsewoman, and, riding sidesaddle, she was responsible for herding the family’s newly purchased livestock…. In a letter written in February of 1851, Helen said that she was healthy despite the harsh winter and was making an overcoat from stag hide, which she had obtained from visiting Indians for eight scarves bought in Hamburg.

Helen’s mother died that fall, and, in mourning, her father left the family behind while traveling to look at the prospect of building a new life for them in San Antonio. During his absence, according to McGuire, the 15-year-old set her mind on marriage to Vilmos Madarasz, the teen-aged son of a fellow Hungarian immigrant. Despite, her father’s disapproval, the couple married in June of 1853. The newlyweds remained in New Buda with Vilmos’ family when Lazlo Ujhazy moved the rest of the family on to San Antonio.

In this case, father evidently knew best. Helen found herself two children later in Hungary with a straying husband, supposedly off settling business connected to his inheritance from his grandmother. While she once again had a maid, McGuire wrote she felt:

… abandoned by her husband, who was wasting his inheritance in rich living and flirting with women in another part of Hungary. This situation created a scandal in both their families. Described as uncontrollable as well as childish, lonely and weak, Madarasz let it be known that he considered his American civil marriage invalid in Hungary….

Reuniting with her father during his visit to Switzerland, a pregnant Helen and her two sons sailed with him to Texas in 1858. While aboard ship crossing between New Orleans and Galveston, she lost her youngest son to a raging fever.

In San Antonio, Helen moved into the Ujhazy house, Sirmezo, on Olmos Creek near the headwaters of the river (now Olmos Basin and Olmos Park). Texas did not impress Helen immediately, and she was not getting along with her older sister, Klara, in the cramped homestead. McGuire wrote, Helen complained in a letter she penned to another sister:

There is scarcely a day that I don’t ask God to liberate me from here.

Helen borrowed from her family against an expected inheritance arriving from Hungary to purchase a farm on the Cibolo. Farming alone was difficult – drought, scorpions and marauding Indians – and working the fields added years to her appearance. In 1864, she finally filed for divorce, granted by default.

Following the death of her father in 1870, her brother, Farkas, made a series of unfortunate business decisions affecting the estate. His main creditors, Dr. Ferdinand Herff and Judge Albert Dittmar, foreclosed on Sirmezo. Fortunately, prior to the sale, wrote McGuire, Farkas had at least transferred ownership of all moveable property and livestock to Helen.

While her siblings returned to Hungary, Helen had become a Texan. McGuire described her as having emerged as a capable, independent businesswoman, making money through real estate transactions and by loaning out profits.

In 1883, she purchased land on the river from George Brackenridge, who lived on the adjacent property, Fernridge. Brackenridge retained the water rights, wrote McGuire, for San Antonio Waterworks.

A 1911 postcard shows the beauty of the land in Brackenridge Park formerly owned by Helen Madarasz.

A May 1, 1899, edition of the San Antonio Daily Express described Helen’s home:

Her house was located in a beautiful Eden-like grove near the head of the San Antonio River; on it and its shrubs, flowers and foliage, as well as the grounds, she expended considerable of her means, and their beauty was famous. The old Madarasz home is in one of the most beautiful natural parks in Texas. It is a grove of tall, thick-boughed trees, under which rise several of the large springs that form the San Antonio River…. In the midst of this grove, with beds of former lagoons and spring feeders to the river, and the head arm of the river itself flowing close by, stood the neat little old-style cottage of Mrs. Madarasz.

The river waters and those of the ancient labor ditch provided the water needed for Ilka Nurseries, which her son Ladislaus operated until he began working in his new neighbor’s bank, First National Bank. This left Helen to run the nurseries and greenhouses.

Helen socialized with her neighbors, both suffragette Eleanor Brackenridge and her brother George, a friendship that attracted attention of others. McGuire wrote:

Colonel Brackenridge, also Helen’s close friend and a lifelong bachelor, possibly provided wise financial advice for her investments, and their names were linked in local gossip.

The divorcée and son managed to move amongst San Antonio’s high society. Helen was among the participants in the first, rather wild, Battle of Flowers Parade in 1891. She also presided at one end of the table at an elegant birthday celebration Ladislaus hosted for himself at the Lakeside Hotel, West End. An October 10, 1892, edition on the San Antonio Daily Light described the event in great detail, listing the Herffs, Kalteyers and Duerlers among the guests. The party stretched until “11 o’clock:”

… the conclusion of which the guests formed a circle around their host, touched glasses and silently drank to his future peace, pleasure and prosperity….”

Ah, but if only the power of the toast had proved more potent. Fortunes changed.

While on April 23, 1895, the San Antonio Daily Light reported Mrs. H. Madarasz received the first ribbon award for the best general collection in the Rose Show, the headlines on May 2 brought bad news about Ladislaus’ role in the disappearance of large sums of cash at First National Bank:

The bank officials are reticent, but enough has been learned to say that he was infatuated with the great American game of poker, and was a heavy player at club tables, often losing or winning as high as $500 on a night’s play….

It is understood the poker rooms frequented by Mr. Madarasz were those of Thurmond, on Dolorosa Street. Very high, or unlimited play is said to be allowed there….

Among the “goody-goody” folks, Mr. Madarasz was thought to be such a “nice” man.

Ladislaus fled the country, and the embarrassed Helen, according to McGuire, became reclusive, focusing on her greenhouses.

Then the final tragedy befell her. At first, the San Antonio Daily Express of April 30, 1899, reported that Helen accidentally had burned to death in a fire in a home that took fire fighters downtown too long to reach. But on May 1, the San Antonio Daily Light started unfolding a more grisly story and the incendiarism ignited to conceal it:

Aged Lady* Killed Robbed and Burned….

In the ruins were found the remains of Mrs. Madarasz on some blood-soaked bedding in the bedroom. The trunk of the body and the back of the head was all that remained of this venerable and well-known lady. She had either been burned alive after being wounded near death or had been smothered by the smoke.

The Light speculated about the motives:

Deceased was supposed to have always a sum of money in her home. She had been in quite opulent circumstances in former years, and by the sale of flowers recently from the nursery for Flower Battle decorations and for the State Medical Convention it was known she had at least $200 in the house….

It is said Mrs. Madarasz possessed a large quantity of old jewelry, old family heirlooms as well as valuable bric-a-brac and silver, none of which have been accounted for.

And pointing of fingers began quickly:

The theory generally accepted about the city that some Mexicans who are strangers and have recently arrived at the rock quarry settlement, near Mrs. Madarasz’ place, from Mexico, on their way to East Texas, are responsible for the crime.

A $1,000 reward was posted for information in the case. But rather than Mexicans surfacing as suspects, Captain James Van Riper traveled to Alice, Texas, to fetch two suspects in another case and exacted a confession from William Cary, also known as John Sands, a confession also implicating J.W. Hart.

These two suspects were African American, and indignation raged in the city as the news of the arrest spread. Talk turned to hanging, so precautions were taken. According to the June 21 edition of the Daily Light:

Sheriff Campbell had carefully made plans to avoid  any disorder and notified Van Riper to have the train stopped before the depot.

The suspects were slipped off the train and driven in a hack to the county jail.

But once again, suspects were cleared. The headline of the June 28, 1899, edition of the Daily Express read “Negro Suspect’s Story Straight,” and “Hart and Cary said to have been in Tampico when the crime was committed.”

On June 29, the Daily Light reported District Attorney Carlos Bee had produced a letter from the American consul in Tampico verifying the alibi. Bee asked Sands:

… if he had made a confession of the murder of Mrs. Madarasz and he replied that if he had he knows nothing of it. He stated that sometimes he loses his mind and that he does not know what he talks about in such cases. He said he fell out a tree while a boy and has been affected ever since. He said he loses his mind, when he becomes frightened. He is a very ignorant negro. Both men denied they had ever been in San Antonio before.

Hart is an intelligent negro. He stated he was a British subject in the Bahama Islands and that he had gone to school fourteen years and was a monitor and had taught school. He was also a tailor in his country and regretted ever having left his shop….

Their stories must have been convincing to the point it moved some in the room to contribute to their transportation back out of San Antonio:

After the men had been discharged District Attorney Carlos Bee, Country Treasurer John Tobin and others who were in the courtroom contributed a little change toward them until each man had a dollar.

While that seems small compensation for their inconvenience, at least they were not hung by an angry mob.

But, that leaves the murder of Helen Madarasz a mystery.

That’s why I think her spirit still wanders the park at night, tending the flowers and seeking the guilty.

Let me know if you see her.

*I object to calling a 61 year-old “aged,” but that certainly pales in comparison to the quick accusations in the press against Mexicans and African Americans at the time.

Update on August 5, 2012: The ghosts who might be haunting Madarasz Park appear to be multiplying, and I promise they are not figments resulting from over-percolating in bath bubbles. Sarah sent me a clipping from the March 29, 1907, issue of the San Antonio Gazette that indicates this could be titled “The Curse of Madarasz Park.”

The parkland claimed the lives of four men during a one-year period. On May 14, 1906, Ernest Richter, “an aged man from Fredericksburg,” drowned. The proprietor who took over the management of the park in June of that year, Otto Petrus Goetz, committed suicide there on December 3. The fate of the following proprietor, Sam Wigodsky, was hardly better. He and his employee, William Berger, drowned on March 28, 1907, when their boat capsized as they tried to retrieve an empty beer keg midstream. While the drowning of the two men, both in their mid-30s, was ruled accidental, reports the following day claimed Wigodsky had been in possession of $1,000 in cash, mysteriously missing. Makes one almost afraid to ask the fate of the next proprietor….

‘Faux Bois’ Roots Run Deep in San Antonio

Like remnants of an ancient petrified forest blending in with the urban landscape, San Antonio’s cement artworks, faux bois or trabajo rustico, are cherished landmarks.  The rough “bark” of the old trolley stop near Central Market in Alamo Heights; the covered bridge in Brackenridge Park; and the entrance to the Japanese Tea Garden has been rubbed to a sheen by the exploring hands of generations of San Antonio’s children.

The craft of creating trabajo rustico sculptures could have been lost for San Antonio following the deaths of Dionicio Rodriguez and Maximo Cortes, but fortunately Maximo’s son, Carlos Cortes, inherited both the secret formulas and the talent to continue to add prominent public artwork throughout the city.  Carlos installed a graceful “cypress” bursting through the ceiling in the middle of the San Antonio Children’s Museum; built the Treehouse for the Witte Museum; added a trellis to the River Walk; recently completed the massive Grotto for the river’s Museum Reach; and installed benches in a pocket park.

San Antonio’s connections to the art form of trabajo rustico are explored during an exhibit and related symposium, both part of the celebration of Historic Preservation Month.  The Tradition of Trabajo Rustico:  Fantasies in Cement can be viewed in the Russell Hill Rogers Lecture Hall in the Navarro Campus of the Southwest School of Art and Craft through May 30.

Speakers at the symposium on the morning of Saturday, May 15, include Patsy Pittman Light, author of Capturing Nature:  The Cement Sculpture of Dionicio Rodriguez.  Following a box lunch, there will be a bus tour of some of San Antonio’s faux bois landmarks and a demonstration by Cortes at his studio.

The morning session is admission-free.  The fee for lunch and the afternoon bus tour is $25.  For more information, telephone the San Antonio Conservation Society, 210-224-6163.

January 16, 2013, Update: San Antonio’s faux bois art and artists are featured on KLRN ARTS.