Pictures of Denman Estate Park near the Medical Center have always intrigued me. Despite its small size, I wanted to visit the park that includes both a massive southern plantation-style home and a traditional Korean pavilion, along with a small trail network.

Nearly all publicly available sources call the park a 20-acre property, but most of the publicly accessible areas are located on the original 12.5 acres of city-owned land. After the death of lawyer and philanthropist Gilbert Denman Jr. in 2004, the city purchased the land in 2007 from his estate for $2.5 million.

Denman Estate Park

Offers: Walking
Location: 7735 Mockingbird Ln, San Antonio, TX 78229
Trail miles: Approximately 0.5 miles of gravel and paved footpaths
Restrooms: Restrooms and drinking water available at the park

The University of the Incarnate Word had originally bought an adjacent 7.7 acres from Denman in 2007. It now belongs to Family Educators Alliance of South Texas, or FEAST, a Christian-influenced homeschool resource center. The organization offers curriculums and other resources including, for many years, a homeschool sports league.

FEAST also owns the former Denman mansion itself, also called the Rosemont, built in 1936. With its white columns and grounds surrounded by old live oaks whose limbs sweep the ground, the building looks like many other antebellum-style mansions. The organization hosts holiday events and “high teas,” along with offering the facility for booking for private events and weddings.

I was a little more drawn to the other main architectural feature at the park, one unique in San Antonio. On the edge of a pond at the center of the property, visitors can get up close to a traditional Korean pavilion. 

The Rosemont, a 1930s-era mansion build by the Denman family, is often booked for weddings and other events.
The Rosemont, a 1930s-era mansion built by the Denman family, is often booked for weddings and other events. Credit: Brendan Gibbons for the San Antonio Report

The pavilion is a gift from the city of Gwangju, South Korea, one of San Antonio’s 11 sister cities around the world. The relationship dates to 1981, when Gwangju became San Antonio’s first sister city in Asia. I couldn’t find a source on how exactly the Sister City arrangement began, but it came only a year after a violent uprising in Gwangju in 1980, when hundreds were killed in clashes between the Korean military and protesters demonstrating against a military coup d’etat. 

Covered in finely detailed paintings of lotuses and other floral patterns in blue, red, green, white, gold and purple, the pavilion is one of the most beautiful pieces of public art I’ve seen in a San Antonio park. The entrances are roped off to protect it, but my parents and I were still able to get close enough to admire all of the intricate wood carving and painting. A plaque in English and Korean states that the design “embodies the beauty and harmony created by nature and structure.”

Korean artisans built the traditional pavilion, a gift from San Antonio's sister city of Gwangju, in 2010.
Korean artisans built the traditional pavilion, a gift from San Antonio’s sister city of Gwangju, in 2010. Credit: Brendan Gibbons for the San Antonio Report

To build the pavilion, 13 artisans from South Korea worked from dawn to dusk for the better part of a week, according to a San Antonio Express-News story from 2010. Another team spent a month staining the structure to protect its wood and give it is colorful designs. The gift from Gwangju also includes a wall of Korean-sourced granite and an intricately painted wooden gate, set behind the pavilion down a slope.

“It is hoped that this ‘pavilion of Gwangju’ will offer many opportunities to strengthen the friendly relationship between Gwangju and San Antonio, as well as inspire an in-depth understanding of Korean culture and traditions by the American public,” the inscription reads.
The park only has about a half mile of trail in total, including a loop around the pond near the pavilion. After a year of severe drought, the pond remains less than half full even after recent rains, with the exposed roots of the cypress trees lining its edges looking like piles of driftwood. Still, we saw turtles swimming near its surface and ducks and geese lounging around its edges.

My mom has been getting more into birding by ear, with help from the Merlin app on her phone developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We broke out the app during a walk along the backside of the property, which passes through a more forested area. We logged a cacophony of cardinals, a species she loves to see because of their absence from our hometown in Western Colorado, even though they’re common here. But the app also reminded me of some species I tend to overlook about because their calls are harder to identify, including white-eyed vireo and blue-gray gnatcatcher (a bird I love because of its hilarious angry eyebrow markings). 

Pam Gibbons, the author's mother, looks for birds along a footpath through the forest.
Pam Gibbons, the author’s mother, looks for birds along a footpath through the forest. Credit: Brendan Gibbons for the San Antonio Report

My dad is a landscape architect; while my mom looked for birds, he and I talked trees. In this small forest, we noticed an interesting mix of trees I don’t often see in combination here. They included some kind of pine, which don’t grow in San Antonio naturally, as well as more familiar species such as Mexican sycamore and red oak. I couldn’t help but take photos of a flowering red buckeye tree, which I didn’t know much about but apparently grows from North Carolina and Florida all the way west to Central Texas.

We saw people walking their dogs and baby strollers through the area, and some children had made a makeshift hut out of fallen limbs. A circle of stone blocks offered a place to sit under the canopy. One odd sight we noticed was a heap of potato peelings and other fruit and vegetable scraps laying on the ground. An offering to deer and other wildlife, or simply a pile of biodegradable waste that someone didn’t want to throw away?

One other feature at the park worth mentioning is the “moon labyrinth,” a low hedge maze near the Rosemont mansion that invites visitors to take a meditative walk along its meandering paths. The shrubs planted there were in scraggly shape, perhaps due to the drought or excess shade cast by the oak trees overhead.

If I lived in the Medical Center area, I might visit the park more regularly to get a moment away from nature, but its small size makes it less of a destination than other parks in the area.

For people who don’t live nearby, Denman Estate Park is still worth at least one visit, if for no other reason than to admire the craftsmanship of the Gwangju pavilion.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.