Almost everyone in San Antonio has been to Brackenridge Park, but the same can’t be said for intriguing Miraflores next door.
Things are changing, however, with a big push from the city and the nonprofit Brackenridge Park Conservancy to restore the land overlooking the San Antonio River to its former glory.
“One day this could be a wonderful venue for … all kinds of celebrations,” said Conservancy board President Joe Calvert.
Once a wealthy physician’s private preserve, the 4.5-acre tract on East Hildebrand Avenue just west of Broadway has been empty and nearly abandoned for half a century. Most people remember it as the mysterious, empty lot where a replica of the headless Winged Victory of Samothrace statue presided over weeds, amidst tumbled stone columns.
The garden was created as the private retreat of Dr. Aureliano Urrutia, once a physician to Mexico’s President Porfirio Diaz, who served during the late 1800s and early years of the 20th century. Urrutia moved his family to San Antonio during the Mexican Revolution. Urrutia, known for his flowing black cape and colorful character, built a downtown clinic and a mansion farther south along Broadway. In 1921, he created Miraflores, a garden filled with fountains, reflecting pools and sculpture.
In 1962, Urrutia sold the 15-acre property to USAA, but the title to the 4.5-acre sculpture garden was contested for years. Time and neglect took their toll. Today the lush gardens are gone, the ground is dry and the art pieces have been ravaged by the elements and vandals.
In 2006, after political and legal battles, the city assumed ownership of Miraflores, and gradually, a vision to restore it began to take shape. When the ambitious current Master Plan for Brackenridge Park was created, the Conservancy took on a vital role in realizing the vision.
The Conservancy, working with the city’s Parks & Recreation Department, plans to breathe new life into Miraflores with a hope to one day make the land a beautiful gateway into Brackenridge Park.
Miraflores is not open to the public — yet. But since the city took over, the wrought-iron fence and eye-catching tiled pillars flanking the entrance gate on Hildebrand have been restored, along with a charming old guest house. Sculpture, pillars, urns and tiles have been unearthed, along with the remains of a brick path.
Lynn Osborne Bobbitt, the Conservancy’s executive director, said she expects the walkway restoration to wrap up this summer. After that, the group hopes to be able to guide tours into the property over the beautiful faux bois bridge that leads into it from the northern end of Brackenridge Park. With that in mind, she said, a bronze statue of Urrutia, created for him in 1941, has been cleaned (“it was a little green,” she noted), and turned to face the bridge.
On a balmy night in late March, 430 San Antonians got a preview of the possibilities. The occasion was the first gala bash at Miraflores since Urrutia’s heyday, the Conservancy’s annual “Spirit of Brackenridge Park” fundraiser.
Guests streamed through the Hildebrand gates, past the restored tiled columns brightened by colorful streamers and paper flowers. They wandered around the park, where strategic lighting illuminated the Winged Victory, stone lions, urns and pieces of statuary, and listened to Elise Urrutia tell stories from a soon-to-be published book about her great-grandfather and the “garden of Eden” he created here.
Patsy Light, author of “Capturing Nature: The Cement Sculpture of Dionicio Rodríguez,” chatted with friends about the doctor’s patronage of the famed faux bois artist, whose works are seen throughout Brackenridge Park and the city.
Former Mayor Lila Cockrell, honored as a “Miraflores Visionary,” reminisced about her part in the campaign to save the property for the city, when she was president of the San Antonio Parks Foundation.
“Our parks are sacred land.”
— Former Mayor Lila Cockrell
Meanwhile, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, another guest of honor, touted the nonprofit’s goals for all of the 343-acre Brackenridge Park and called it “our Central Park.”
Calvert, whose wife, Rhonda, co-chaired the gala with Charlotte Mitchell, said Brackenridge, with its many layers of culture and history, is widely considered “the most powerfully significant municipal park in the United States.”
“The Conservancy is committed to honoring that history, and restoring it for the entire city to enjoy,” he added.
The effort will take time and money. While the city’s most recent bond issue included badly needed funds for Brackenridge Park, fully restoring the whole park will require a powerful group like the Conservancy to leverage additional private and institutional money, officials said.
“We’re looking at a 30-year plan, and $200 (million) to $300 million,” Calvert said.
Board members Nick Hollis, Lukin Gilliland Jr. and John Montford have embarked on the first phase of fundraising – “a launching pad,” as Hollis called it, for greater things to come.