When Kathryn O’Rourke relocated to San Antonio from Philadelphia, one feature of the city caught the eye of the Trinity University professor who specializes in Mexican art and architecture.
“What in the world is this?” O’Rourke wondered as she drove along Hildebrand Avenue, past an ornate archway decorated with Mexican talavera tile. She swung her car into the adjacent parking lot to pause and take a closer look.
“I was amazed,” she said of the tiles, which pay homage in painted captions to the founding of Mexico City in 1521 and the establishment of the Miraflores sculpture garden 400 years later on the piece of land the archway opens onto.
Miraflores is the name given to the 4.5-acre property by Dr. Aureliano Urrutia in 1921, a noted Mexican surgeon who relocated to San Antonio during the Mexican Revolution. One hundred years later, it is now one among Brackenridge Park’s cultural features requiring significant restoration.
Other features include the once-thriving Sunken Garden Theater, the Upper Labor Dam and Acequia that dates to 1776, and a 1926 footbridge by noted faux bois artist Dionicio Rodriguez. All are on a list in the recently released Brackenridge Park Cultural Landscape Report, which assesses the historical and present-day value of the park to San Antonians and recommends actions for preserving the park into the future.
The 2016 Brackenridge Park Master Plan now includes the 650-page report, which details not only the area’s 120-year recent history as a municipal park, but its 12,000-year existence as a locus of human life in the region.
“This is really the first opportunity to look at the park holistically and in a comprehensive way,” said Lynn Bobbitt, executive director of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy that oversees the park, “so that we’re not making recommendations for different areas in a piecemeal way.”
After a significant outcry when the master plan was initially made public, the conservancy recognized the need for community input, and Bobbitt said a series of public conversations will help determine which park features will receive priority as restoration commences.
The first public overview session will be held Oct. 6 via Zoom, Bobbitt said, followed by further videoconference meetings focused on different areas of the park. In November, the input will be collected and assessed, then released in early 2022.
“It’s very much an exciting time, and a way that all of us can look at what is the future of the park and how to sustain it,” Bobbitt said.
The public will have an early opportunity to get a glimpse into the rich cultural history of the park at a symposium focused on Miraflores, Sept. 18 from 8:30 a.m. to noon at the San Antonio Botanical Garden.
Titled “Miraflores at 100 – del pasado al futuro” in recognition of the 100th anniversary of Urrutia’s garden, symposium discussions will examine how the Mexican-born surgeon’s interests in architecture, art, and history from the precolonial era to his own time shaped the contents of Miraflores, and how the sculptures, talavera tile, architecture, and flora of the garden reflect the complexity of the Mexican culture.
Speakers include poet and scholar John Phillip Santos, Trinity University anthropology Professor Jennifer Mathews, and Urrutia’s great grandaughter Anne Elise Urrutia, who has contributed to scholarship about the garden and has written a book, Miraflores: San Antonio’s Mexican Garden of Memory, scheduled for publication in spring 2022 by Trinity University Press.
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O’Rourke will moderate the discussion. “In my dream vision of it, this symposium will help spark enough interest and awareness of the importance of this place,” she said. “There are stories that need to be told here” in hopes that the city will commit “a substantial amount of money to reviving it in some capacity.”
The history of Miraflores is complicated. Garden features fell into disrepair due to neglect, having changed hands among corporate owners, one of which dumped tons of infill in order to create an outdoor recreation area for employees. Recent excavations have uncovered architectural and sculptural treasures under that infill layer, including paved footpaths that at one time connected to the main area of the park via a bridge over the San Antonio River.
A 2008 archaeological survey also uncovered artifacts that prove prehistoric human presence in the northeastern corner of the garden, near the arches that once drew O’Rourke’s eye.
She said that while Miraflores is in one sense the idiosyncratic vision of one person, taken as a whole it represents important cultural links between the modern era in Mexico and present-day San Antonio.
“I hope that it is of interest to a very broad public,” O’Rourke said. “I think of it as a coming together of people who care about the city, and its past and its future.”
Given its location in the heart of the city, Miraflores is crucial, but “it’s so much bigger than just that one piece of property.” As a city, she said, “we’re doing amazing things knitting together landscape and ecology and far-flung parts of the city in ways that really serve San Antonians. … This is such an opportunity. I look at Miraflores and I look at Brackenridge Park as one of the last great pieces that needs to be put together in the puzzle.”
A future Brackenridge
Charged with charting the future of Brackenridge Park, Bobbitt hopes the public discussions will generate enough interest to help secure funding in the next municipal bond in 2022.
The 2017 bond committed $7.75 million for infrastructure work on the park, including repairing walls along the river, restoration of the 1877 pump house, and repairing the 1776 dam and acequia. An additional $13.5 million went to parking garage construction.
Bobbitt wouldn’t estimate how much was needed, but said the discussions will help determine costs according to which areas of the park need attention first, and that information might guide how much of the bond will go to Brackenridge.
On Friday, the conservancy will announce restoration plans for the Sunken Garden Theater, once a thriving entertainment venue that, like other areas of the park, has fallen into disrepair.
Meanwhile, the release of the Cultural Landscape Report, available for download on the Brackenridge Park Conservancy website, along with the upcoming public discussions, will be a prime opportunity for San Antonians to learn more about how their use of the park — a popular site for picnicking, golf, zoo visits, holiday celebrations, and events such as the upcoming Parktoberfest on Sept. 26 — connects to its past.
“There’s so many hidden stories here in the park … we want to be able to talk about the diversity of the people who have used this park over time,” Bobbitt said.