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?

Something old, something new along the Mission Reach

In the early 1700s, Native Americans dug an elaborate system of irrigation ditches, or acequias, to water the farmlands surrounding the string of missions founded by Spanish friars. According to an article written by Jose A. Rivera in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly in 2003, the farmlands near Mission San Juan Capistrano were served by this system:

… until the spring of 1958, when a channel improvement project relocated the bed of the San Antonio River two hundred feet away from the headgate of the San Juan Acequia. In the process of straightening, widening, and deepening the river, the site of the original saca de agua (the historic San Juan Dam) was buried with excavated dirt and rubble. The new channel was too far away and deep to supply water to the San Juan headgate by way of gravity-flow irrigation as had been the practice for more than two hundred years.

Secularization of Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1824 included close to 500 acres served by San Juan Acequia. This land was granted to:

… military officers from the Bexar garrison, a former military chaplain, and four women, each coveting the quality of agricultural lands available at this mission site.

It took subsequent landowners decades of litigation and negotiations to regain their water access following the 1950s’ flood-control work undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the San Antonio River Authority. The oldest water rights in Texas, Rivera writes, finally were restored in 2001, ahead of the San Antonio River Improvements Project.

Now, a short jog off the west bank trail of the San Antonio River Improvements Project leads through a field of wildflowers back to the ancient stone arched acequia, topped once again by water flowing into the restored ditches nourishing neighboring fields. The 13 miles of the recent river project, including the Mission Reach, represent a monumental effort by the Corps, the River Authority, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County to restore the river ecosystem to a more natural, healthy state. The wildlife, fisher-folks, hikers, runners, bicyclists and paddlers using it attest to their success.

Only a stroll away is a contemporary addition to the river’s banks, “Whispers.” In 2015, the San Antonio River Foundation contributed this site-specific sculpture by Belgian artist Arne Quinze to the Mission Reach project. (Read more about Quinze’s sculpture here.)

Lush greenery and wildflowers carpet the banks all along the Mission Reach. Hope you get a chance to walk and explore it before spring is overtaken by the summer heat.

Coming home to roost to celebrate San Jacinto Day?

corrmorants

 

Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
The middle Tree and highest there that grew, 
Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true Life
Thereby regaind, but sat devising Death
To them who liv’d….

Paradise Lost, John Milton

Satan disguised as a cormorant to spy on Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden seems apt to me.

stretching-cormorant

USDA photo

The gloomy-looking double-crested cormorants always spook me. They love to pose on the chains by the dam by the marina, stretching their pterodactyl-type wings as though offering to lift the chains for the barges to cruise right under, dramatically plunging to the level below.

I feel a little bit better about this display now that I know they have no oil glands to repel water; they have to spread their wings to dry out their water-logged feathers. They can’t help it.

But cormorants pop up suddenly from underwater, seemingly out of nowhere, as you walk along the river’s banks. Like Lola Fandango swimming in the tank in Where the Boys Are, these expert fishermen can hold their breath as they swim underwater for a long time. More than a minute.

Even one of river’s cormorants can give me the willies. That’s why this Hitchcock-like gathering of the birds on the Mission Reach seemed particularly ominous the other morning. For birds added to the list of those protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the 1970s, this had to represent some kind of major powwow. Fortunately, their eyes focused toward downtown, the water buzzards let us pass by them unharmed.

What could the convention of cormorants portend? The Irish part of me heaved a sigh of relief – at least the sea crows were not perched atop a church steeple.

Some cultures consider cormorants noble, but, while I’m trying to regard the glass as half-full, I can’t sell myself on that one.

Fishermen regard their sighting as good luck; the fish they seek should be found nearby. One plus for the cormorant.

According to the USDA, greedy cormorants keep fish from overpopulating the river. They actually are an environmental indicator species, meaning the environment of the Mission Reach is healthy. So our cormorants are bearers of good news. Chalk up one more for the cormorant, plus one for the work of the San Antonio River Authority.

In old Norwegian legends, a trio of cormorants bear messages or warnings from the dead.*

But we encountered a whole army of them ready to invade downtown. There were maybe 100 of them. Maybe even more than 200 (Okay, I’m not sure how many. But we definitely were outnumbered.).

But good ol’ Cliff helped me figure this out. Norwegians also believed the dead used the cormorant guise another way as well – so they could fly home for a visit.

the spirits of defenders of the Alamo?

the noble spirits of defenders of the Alamo?

So, based on my extensive research, my interpretation of the meaning of the gathered army follows.

Obviously, those cormorants were the defenders of the Alamo, rising up to celebrate the anniversary of the defeat of the Mexican Army at San Jacinto in 1836.

What do you think of that brilliant idea, my friend, Phil Collins?

Fiesta San Antonio must be their favorite holiday for rising from the grave. Betcha they come back next year.

*I have to stop right here and make a confession to the spirit of Mrs. Masterson. Some of these concepts came from CliffsNotes.com. But I promise. I never opened one of those guides once in your class in high school. Not for Milton. Not even when Moby Dick threatened to swallow all time for social life. Plus, I knew you could smell a CliffsNotes’ idea in the answer to a discussion question before the ink dried. Toward the end of the book, though, I did start reading only every fifth chapter…. That was still a whale of a lot of pages.