“Otto’s revenge, this is. I never thought of myself as the vengeful type, but, I must confess, this is the best Christmas present I have ever given or received.”
“Ah, Emma,” says Judge Newton, “I believe it was best expressed in Beowulf: ‘It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.’”
“Maybe, Gallie, that is indeed why this feels so good.”
“Aunt Emma,” says Corwin Priest, “eleven acres along the river is a Christmas gift for all of San Antonio. Otto Koehler Park. Uncle Otto must be kicking his heels together up above us. Is it true that part of that land might be haunted?”
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
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes in the middle of the night, lions and wildcats can be heard crying out from the San Antonio Zoo by people living in neighborhoods more than a mile away from Brackenridge Park. Or so they say. I’m not convinced that some of those cries might not be a woman’s screams….
Shortly before coming to San Antonio to star in a silent film shooting in San Antonio in 1923, Martha Mansfield predicted what fashions stylish women would be wearing that fall:
The straightline frock, slim and narrow, is back for another season…. in lustrous satin of white or pastel shades.
The Hamilton News, July 2, 1923
After breakfasting in the company of friends at the St. Anthony Hotel on the morning of November 29, she unfortunately traded a narrow, fashionable frock for one of yards of fabric billowing over layers of crinolines. She donned the gown for her role as a daughter of the Confederacy falling in love with a Union soldier in The Warrens of Virginia, written by William Churchill de Mille, Cecil’s older brother. Brackenridge Park was selected for the day’s shooting because it:
contained a picturesque group of rag pickers’ shacks that would do very well for the servants’ quarters of the Southern plantation….
The Ogden Examiner, December 30, 1923
Her chauffeur parked the car near the set, and, during a break in filming, Martha retreated inside to relax. Shortly thereafter she emerged “screaming from her limousine, a flaming torch.” Leading man Wilfred Lytell threw his jacket over her head and face to protect her from the flames as the chauffeur frantically flailed to extinguish them. Although she was rushed to the hospital, she died from the severe burns on November 30.
How the fire started and enveloped Martha so quickly remained a mystery; police termed her death accidental. Some say the cause was a match tossed away carelessly by a fellow cast member; others speculated she herself dropped a match while lighting a cigarette. The Ogden Examiner hinted at foul play, perhaps the actress had not been alone:
What was it that turned the picturesque gown into a fiery funeral shroud?…. What started the flames that swept over her crinoline costume and wrapped her in a deadly embrace….
Born in New York as the new century dawned, Martha Erlich quickly progressed from the Ziegfeld Follies to star in silent films under her stage name of Martha Mansfield. The young starlet quickly was cast in numerous films, with a role opposite John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1920 her most famous.
After her life was extinguished in San Antonio, her body was shipped to New York. Papers reported 1,000 people crowded into the funeral chapel, with another 5,000 held at bay by police outside. Among the films released after her death was The Silent Command, a story of “temptation and disgrace of a naval officer” by a ring of spies led by Bela Lugosi. The Washington Post reported the film was “heartily endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the Navy and by General Pershing.”
So perhaps there is another ghost haunting Brackenridge Park, joining poor Helen Madarasz whose body went up in flames the year Martha Mansfield was born.
I promise I am not actively seeking spirits to populate the park. Helen is the only one I stumbled across on my own. Pursuers of the paranormal based in Austin recently led me to Martha after reading my earlier post about Helen. Just in time for Halloween. And Sarah found an additional four men who all perished in 1906 and 1907 in the portion of the park that bore Helen’s name – Ernest Richter, Otto Petrus Goetz, Sam Wigodsky and William Berger.
Let me know if you see or sense any of them. Or perhaps hear their screams.