The Brackenridge Park landscape contains an astonishing 12,000 years of documented prehistoric and human interaction with the upper course of the San Antonio River. In that span, its 120-year existence as a municipal park is relatively short. Brackenridge Park is thus more than a municipal park. It is a rich and complex cultural landscape that not only merits pride and deserves protection but also demonstrates that landscapes are inherently dynamic.
At present, Brackenridge Park is in decline. Its historic and public value have become less and less comprehensible. And a piecemeal approach to improving its current conditions will not serve its long-term viability. Yet the ultimate purpose of preserving this cultural landscape cannot be to freeze it in time. We should not toil to create a static and outmoded representation of one single period of its existence. That would be wholly impossible. The very act of landscape preservation at Brackenridge Park necessitates a nuanced understanding of its past to chart a new way forward.
Brackenridge Park holds stories about San Antonio’s foundations and origins. Revealing these stories requires interdisciplinary measures on a grand, systemic scale. The most powerful landscape preservation will convey that this place is ecologically, historically, and culturally meaningful and relevant across the arc of time. Landscape preservation at Brackenridge Park must make obvious to the public the many layers that contribute to the site’s unique local character and national importance, with paramount focus on the long- term sustainability of the park and the many ways that this landscape defines San Antonio’s identity—that of both the place and its people.
This Cultural Landscape Report (CLR) calls for an interdisciplinary systems-based approach to the park’s preservation and future growth and sets four intentions: (1) to heal Brackenridge Park’s ecology, (2) to protect and celebrate its many layers of historic significance and cultural diversity, (3) to elevate its identity locally and nationally, and (4) to usher it into the twenty-first century.
A distilled explanation of the Treatment, focusing on the overarching approach, is included in the final section of this executive summary. Following the executive summary is a two- part introduction. Part one acquaints CLR users with the park’s history and grounds readers in terminology so they will understand, at a technical level, the complicated network of cultural and related landscapes. Beginning with municipal park, each term builds on the previous term in order to convey how Brackenridge Park fits into this network and how its CLR historians, designers, and ecologists believe it can categorically distinguish itself from other cultural landscapes. Part two focuses on the Brackenridge Park CLR Outcomes, summarizing its Statement of Significance, Determination of Integrity, and Treatment Recommendations, including priority systems and projects.
Treatment that Defines an Indelible Identity—Tomorrow’s Brackenridge
A deliberate shift in Brackenridge Park’s identity is justified. It should be elevated in the eyes and minds of the local community and widely known outside of San Antonio. Brackenridge Park should be loved and experienced as an immersive landscape of learning—a cultural park that is equal parts ecological laboratory, outdoor museum, leisure and recreational park, and revered setting.
In the immediate future, updating Brackenridge Park’s National Register Nomination to recognize its cultural resources as significant beyond the local level will begin the technical process of elevating its identity. But physical interventions are also necessary.
Eight natural and constructed landscape systems represent the site’s continuum through time and collectively contribute to Brackenridge Park’s defining spirit—whimsical, romantic, and uniquely San Antonian. Yet these systems are currently either in jeopardy or invisible. The systems include:
- buried prehistoric and historic Archaeology;
- the no-longer-healthy or accessible upper course of the San Antonio River and Riparian Corridor;
- damaged and hidden River Structures—acequias, dams, ditches, tunnels, and retaining walls;
- threatened Vegetation/Soils/Hydrology, made up of historic tree canopies and dwindling plant communities;
- Entry and Arrival Areas that are not entirely evident or inviting;
- Circulation through the Park that is confusing and does not adequately provide access to the park’s numerous landscape experiences;
- confusing Edges between Cultural Institutions, which mask their historic relationship with the park, including the Japanese Tea Garden, Witte Museum, San Antonio Zoo, Brackenridge Park Golf Course, Davis Park and others; and
- the park’s regionally distinctive and one-of-a-kind Collection of Historic Buildings, Structures, and Art.
These struggling systems make up the framework for the park. Historically and in the present, they define and imbue this landscape with meaning. For these reasons, this CLR Treatment calls for these systems to be addressed ahead of individual projects in Brackenridge Park.
Together, these systems must become healthy, visible, and cared for, and they must be constant signifiers of the landscape’s ongoing continuum. When this is achieved, Brackenridge Park will transform into a place for which people feel the pride, responsibility, and shared ownership that is necessary for a thriving urban park.
An Interpretation strategy is also critical for the park’s viability. Interpretation must be developed in unison with and as an inextricable component of the systems. Brackenridge Park’s interpretation should forefront its expansive history and San Antonio’s ecological and cultural heritage, with deliberate commitment to diverse and inclusive representation.
Continued dynamism is equally vital to the landscape’s longevity. As this systems-based Treatment is implemented, the many current uses and rituals that contribute to the park and San Antonio’s rich identity can and should remain. But new uses and users will also emerge as population and climate shifts occur and as scientific and technological advances are made. The location, organization, and management of existing and new cultural layers must be considered in tandem with the overall sustainability of the park’s systems.
CLR Treatment includes one other recommendation that the city of San Antonio should work toward as a longer-term goal: achieving congressional designation as a National Heritage Area. Brackenridge Park is one among many cultural sites in the city that emerged along the San Antonio River and its system of artesian springs, expressing the natural pattern of early human settlement along water. Deliberately designing linkages between these sites through interpreted urban greenways will elevate Brackenridge Park—and each linked site— to a precedent-setting level of landscape excellence that not all cultural landscapes possess.
Tomorrow’s Brackenridge Park will be an immersive landscape of learning. Its local, state, and national significance will be evident to users, and its identity as a public land will be indelible.
From the Cultural Landscape Report
The Conservancy realizes that we are stewards of a landscape that takes on greater importance than previously imagined.
There is now a primary management tool that records the past, captures the present conditions, and proposes opportunities for the future.
The CLR establishes guiding principles—all existing and future projects should be evaluated against the Treatment Plan Recommendations and the guiding principles, viewing the park as a whole.
Fundraising identified as crucial for management and for adopting a systems approach.
The Conservancy and stakeholders can move forward with knowledge.
- Establish a Steering Committee to fully understand the complexity of the study and how best to use it.
- Plan public outreach.
- Identify one or more of the five priority systems as a starting point for investment.
- Begin exploration of National Heritage Area designation.
- Update the National Register nomination.
The Brackenridge Park landscape contains an astonishing 12,000 years of documented prehistoric and human interaction with the upper course of the San Antonio River.
Brackenridge Park is thus more than a municipal park. It is a rich and complex cultural landscape that not only merits pride and deserves protection but also demonstrates that landscapes are inherently dynamic.
Two nationally acclaimed landscape architecture firms—Reed Hilderbrand of Cambridge, Mass., and Suzanne Turner Associates of Baton Rouge, La.—in collaboration with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of the University of Texas at Austin, spent a year and a half preparing the Brackenridge Park Cultural Landscape Report, a surprising and challenging study that makes sense of 12,000 years of an evolving landscape and that provides a useable plan for the future.
The documentation, chronology, mapping, and analysis chronicled in this 722-page Cultural Landscape Report and Environmental Site Assessment is an invaluable guide to ensure a healthy and sustainable future for Brackenridge Park.
Lady Bird Wildflower Center
CLRs conventionally focus on human culture and on the social and design histories connected to a landscape.
However, the scope of the Brackenridge Park CLR was expanded to include the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center to develop an Ecological Site Assessment (ESA) that would address the Park’s ecology in greater depth.
This expansion of scope demonstrated the primacy of the San Antonio River in the formation of the City, the magnitude of Brackenridge Park’s compromised ecological and cultural health, and the inherent relationship that exists between ecology and culture in this landscape.
Historical Significance Solidified
The Cultural Landscape Report definitively concludes that Brackenridge Park is distinctive in the state of Texas, the nation, and in the world.
Considered holistically for its archeological, hydrologic, regional vernacular, artistic, and ethnographic evolution and development, the Brackenridge Park landscape possesses national, state, and local significance, and likely, international significance.
The Brackenridge Park landscape is highly significant due to its multiple periods of development in five crucial areas:
- The site’s complicated evolution of water diversion for public water, agriculture, and flood control represents one of the first municipal water systems in the country and a history of managing water as a resource—from a system of acequias built by indigenous laborers beginning in 1719 to the late 19th-century Water Works to a modern tunnel inlet system to manage river flow and flood control.
- This single landscape possesses the ability to tell a contiguous story of occupancy and development from prehistoric to historic periods. It is extremely likely that future research will yield additional prehistoric, protohistoric, and historic information, including evidence of indigenous people, the enslaved, and the early Mexican population.
- The Park’s regional vernacular development and character as an early urban municipal park is exemplified by an extensive collection of vernacular regional features, such as a historic system of roads dating to the early 1900s, a network of pedestrian bridges, rock house architecture, rock house retaining walls, and other vernacular objects, structures, buildings, and built landscape works.
- The landscape is also nationally significant as a result of numerous sculptures designed by Mexican-born artist Dionicio Rodriguez and by Italian-born artist Pompeo Coppini.
- The 20th-century Easter tradition that emerged after World War II (and possibly as early as the 1930s) has been widely associated with San Antonio’s Mexican American community since the 1950s. This recurring ethnographic event is significant at the national, state, and local levels because it conveys a broad pattern of ethnic migration and settlement. It is a newer cultural tradition and ritual that has symbolically imbued Brackenridge Park.
What is a CLR?
The Cultural Landscape Report—a technical tool and historical documentation, previously uncollected information compiled into one comprehensive document—will be used as a catalyst for putting in place necessary funding and a systems-based approach for the preservation of and sustainable growth of Brackenridge Park.
Grounded in multiple disciplines and research, the Brackenridge Park Cultural Landscape Report serves as a guide for preserving its cultural landscape and is the primary tool for long-term management. The CLR:
- Provides analysis of broad historical and contemporary contexts relevant to Brackenridge Park’s development and present circumstances
- Documents Brackenridge Park’s history
- Evaluates the health of the Park’s biotic systems
- Defines the cultural significance of the landscape
- Evaluates the physical and visible integrity of the landscape
- Is the principal treatment document for the preservation of the site’s cultural landscape
- Is the primary tool for Brackenridge Park’s long-term management
- Envisioning Brackenridge Park as part of a national heritage area
Using National Park Service standards for the CLR will contribute to a long-term, overarching goal:
National Heritage Area (NHA) designation in the City of San Antonio
What are the benefits of a NHA designation?
- Sustainable Economic Development through leveraged federal investment
- Potential Restoration Projects that balance environmental needs and recreational opportunities
- Education and Stewardship—NHAs more effectively connect communities to natural, historic, and cultural sites
On May 6, 2017, the citizens of San Antonio approved the 2017-2020 Bond Project, and Brackenridge Park received $7,750,000 in funding for general park improvements and rehabilitation, which may include historic river walls, restrooms, trails, and historic structures.
The Bond Project boundary is from the San Antonio River fence line on the west, Hildebrand Avenue on the north, San Antonio River Raceway, Vehicular Bridge, and Lambert Beach Parking on the east, and the pedestrian bridge on the south.
The scope of the project includes dewatering of the river from the pedestrian to the vehicular bridge to facilitate inspection of the Lambert Beach river channel walls and the Waterworks Pump House No. 1 and subsequent restoration.
Dewatering of the Lambert Beach river channel from the pedestrian bridge to the vehicular bridge will show the actual condition of the deterioration of the Depression-era river channel walls.