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.

Don’t let battle zealots overrun the Crockett Block

Alfred Giles (1853-1920) left England for Texas in 1873 for health reasons, according to historian Mary Carolyn Hollers George, author of The Architectural Legacy of Alfred Giles.

A page 1 article in the March 26, 1883, edition of the San Antonio Evening Light related that the young architect found few opportunities in Austin and was “in very reduced circumstances.” So, the Light continued, Giles and a newly found friend:

…determined to come to San Antonio. Their wealth did not admit of the ordinary expense of travel, which in those days was large, so they elected to walk from Austin to this city. When they arrived here, the prospects were little better, but they got employment cotton picking.

Things began looking up. Giles was commissioned to design houses by some of San Antonio’s most prominent families, numerous commercial structures, an addition to the Bexar County Courthouse and a new courthouse in Wilson County. According to a biographical sketch of Giles provided by the University of Texas Libraries of the U.T. Austin:

…Giles’ work reflected a great variety of styles derived from architectural forms of the past, usually in more or less new combinations. Giles’ own means of expression, however, always took precedence over novelty of fashion. The sobriety and simplicity with which he adapted and combined these stylistic elements suggests that he exercised strong control over his work and that he preferred restraint. A reserved use of ornament and a strong feeling for symmetry, even in asymmetrical compositions, characterize his approach.

Giles produced unpretentious domestic residences and showy mansions, as well as commercial and institutional structures for clients who were the makers of San Antonio, especially the Mavericks, the altruistic developers of Alamo Plaza and Houston Street for whom Giles designed twenty major structures, and the Terrell family for whom he designed at least seven. Indeed, San Antonio was a Giles town with forty structures to his credit in the central city alone by 1900. Families in other Texas towns were also loyal clients, especially Captain Charles Schreiner of Kerrville and the Faltin and Ingenhuett families of Comfort.

This introduction to Alfred Giles is meant to establish his credentials in preparation for a battle to save one his landmarks on Alamo Plaza, the Crockett Block.

Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870) was among the signers of the Declaration of Independence at Washington-on-the-Brazos in 1836. As soon as Texas was established as a republic, his name appeared constantly in deed transactions filed in Bexar County. The freedom he found in the new republic allowed him to quickly purchase land grants awarded by Texas to those who had fought for independence and a multitude of lots along both banks of the San Antonio River and the “Alamo Ditch.”

Although he personally knew men who perished at the Alamo, his acquisitions and building projects demonstrate no attachment to preserving the spots where they died. Only five years after the fall of the Alamo, in fact, he purchased property immediately beside the church itself from Mariano Romano. And he built his home on what is the northwest corner of Alamo Plaza.

Perhaps those closest to war long to move on to more peaceful times. Perhaps this explains why Maverick is thought to have a cannon from the Alamo forged into a bell for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

Unfortunately, Sam’s son, William Maverick (1847-1923), made a major mistake. He sold part of the Romano property to Augustine Honore Grenet (1823-1882) in 1878, adding to land Grenet purchased from the church. Grenet commissioned what William Corner’s 1890 guide termed an “inartistic erection” and an “atrocious lumber building” atop the foundation of the convent and used the Alamo chapel for storage. The Grenet building was later sold to Hugo & Schmeltzer.

Directly across the plaza from the Alamo, however, William and his brother Albert Maverick (1854-1947) did better. In 1882, they hired San Antonio’s most in-demand architect, Alfred Giles, to design a modern structure to supplement the Maverick Building on the northwest corner of Alamo Plaza.

At three stories, the handsome Italianate limestone Crockett Block was low-slung compared to its original neighbors. Both its height and coloring were complementary to the building directly across the plaza from it, the Alamo Chapel. The first-floor commercial bays and windows are flanked by Corinthian columns; the tops of the windows on the second floor appear to take their shape from portions of octagons; while the third-floor windows are arched with keystones.

Among the first Crockett Block tenants was Rafael Diaz, according to undated notes from the Historic Preservation Office of San Antonio in files of the San Antonio Conservation Society Library. Exiled from Cuba for political reasons in 1868, Diaz manufactured what was once the most popular cigar in San Antonio, La Flor de Diaz. He “returned his profits to Cuba to finance the revolutions of his homeland for 32 years.” Another early tenant was Heuermann & Brothers Grocers.

The Crockett Block was a prestigious address for businesses for many years. The vintage postcards of Alamo Plaza demonstrate her subtle presence, as well as the city’s changing treatment of the plaza itself.

But the old girl’s façade suffered some abuse during a period of urban decline. The century-old landmark needed a facelift by the 1980s. George considers the monumental restoration of the Crockett Block undertaken in 1982 to be a Cinderella story, a preservationist’s dream come true. Investors led by developer Bill Schlansker hired architect Humberto Saldana to reclaim the classical details of Giles’ original design.

Now well over a century old, the Crockett Block stands as an important landmark on the plaza. The only flaws in its appearance are the City of San Antonio’s lax enforcement of its signage regulations. Every first-floor tenant has more signage than allowed. Alamo Trolley and Del Sol have plastered some of the handsome windows with self-promotional posters, and even the City of San Antonio’s Visitors Center violates the city’s own rules. “Visitors Center” easily conveys what it is, yet additional messages advertising “Gifts and Souvenirs” have been plastered onto storefront windows.

But the Crockett Block has a new steward. At the end of 2015, it was purchased by the General Land Office of Texas. Perhaps Land Commissioner George P. Bush can rein in his tenants to meet more tasteful standards appropriate for the historic district.

There is only one reason I am telling you all of these things now. It seems as though there is a huge target painted on the façade of the Crockett Block. And it also seems as though the San Antonio Express-News has a giant slingshot loaded with a wrecking ball tautly pulled and aimed that way.

On January 9, the Express-News Editorial Board set forth “Our Agenda 2016 issues and goals.” The Alamo is one of three things the Editorial Board plans to focus on repeatedly this year. The timing of this is to influence the outcome of the master planning process for Alamo Plaza undertaken jointly by the city and the state. The paper is pushing its vision:

We envision a restoration of the site to its 1836 footprint as much as possible, a world-class Alamo museum and visitors center, and surrounding businesses that don’t disrespect the history attached to the Cradle of Texas Independence.

Our Agenda 2016 editorials will be urging bold action.

All that sounds well and good until you follow the track of the original western wall of the Alamo compound at the time of the 1836 battle. Yes, it cuts right through the front portion of the handsome Crockett Block.

1981 excavations on the south side of the Crockett Block opened up Paseo del Alamo linking Alamo Plaza and the San Antonio River through the new Hyatt Regency Hotel. Archaeologists were able to expose foundations of walls of the original Mission San Antonio del Valero, better known as the Alamo. But during the original construction of the Crockett Block, according to George, “surviving wall fragments would have disappeared with excavation of the structure’s basement.”

The Crockett Block could serve a multitude of purposes on a reconfigured plaza. Certainly nothing could make the job of a development officer for the Alamo Endowment easier than positioning potential donors in a third-floor office squarely facing the Alamo itself.

The Crockett Block also stands as a major shield, not just sheltering the plaza from the stark 1980s’ design of the Hyatt Regency, but also its parking garage. A photo of the parking garage is difficult to take because, fortunately, it is screened from view by the Crockett Block.

The Crockett Block is too valuable a part of San Antonio’s history of urban development to lose, and moving it would be absurdly expensive.

And, if a return to appearances before the 1836 Battle of the Alamo is truly a goal, the distinctive parapet would have to go. The unfinished chapel had a flat top at the time. The now-iconic roofline was added 14 years after the fall of the Alamo by the United States Army.

Obviously, the small readership of this blog is no match for the voice of a major newspaper. I feel armed with a peashooter against the onslaught about to be launched by the editorial board.

But maybe someone influential, someone who understands layers of history are as important as any one event, will stumble across this post and take up the charge to spare the Crockett Block.

January 26, 2016, Update: Letter to the Editor from the Express-News

To demolish the historic buildings facing it would be an act of urban design — vandalism in favor of a Disneyland approach to history.

June 27, 2016, Update: The San Antonio Conservation Society has posted a two-part statement, Defending Alamo Plaza:

Alamo Plaza’s importance as a cultural hub… is what we should strive to reclaim and restore, not with re-created structures that function as props, but with compatible adaptive use of existing historic buildings, innovative interpretation, and strategic revitalization that enhances the overall experience for locals and tourists, alike.