- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Eight tall stone pylons stand sentinel over an arcing wall. The central colonnade frames a spectacular view of the Austin skyline.
Extremely few Austinites have ever witnessed this very specific urban scene, which was laid out in 1934. That is because Lookout Point — known to old-timers as Lover’s Peak — is part of hidden Zilker Park.
One reaches this high spot by following the narrow Zilker Clubhouse Road halfway up the hill from Rollingwood Drive. The short, rocky trail to the lookout is marked by a narrow, easily missed upright. To stumble on the partially ruined Lover’s Peak — the connective trellis is missing from this civilized structure — is almost to recover lost time.
During the Austin City Limits Music Festival today and next weekend, tens of thousands of park visitors will roam Zilker’s Great Lawn, along with its Rock Island outcropping. Few will venture from that open space to the hidden and semi-hidden sites in the park — ancient cabins, Depression-era Scout huts, secret springs, architectural remnants and a Cold War-era fallout shelter, blessedly locked.
“It’s a repository for so many of the city’s artifacts,” says parks historian Kim McKnight, who seeks to stabilize, preserve and restore these and other Zilker gems. “It’s so massive and complex, most people don’t know what’s here.”
1. Zilker Park Clubhouse: This former Boy Scout Hut, built around 1934, now hosts weddings, meetings and other functions. Like the Girl Scout Hut on the other side of the park, it resembles the national park lodges that were constructed all over the country during the 1930s.
2. Austin Nature and Science Center: This cluster of interpretive indoor and outdoor classrooms includes a mini-zoo of rescued animals. Parents of small children have probably discovered it already, but do they know that the Nature’s Way preschool here is built around a pioneer cabin, the Ashford McGill house, built in the 1870s? It was updated in the rustic Art Deco style in the 1930s.
3. Mirror Pond: This retreat on a dry branch of Eanes Creek was dammed and rimmed with stones to create a magical spot for strolling. The main dam is gone, and the pond now mirrors the sky only after a major rain.
4. Lookout Point: This ledge, which served as a make-out spot for couples, closely resembles the much more dramatic lookout at Mount Bonnell. Besides an arbor, it requires repairs to its breached walls.
5. Pistol Range: Commuters who zoom along Rollingwood Drive west of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) probably wonder about the high, leaning stone wall that leads to a short cliff. This was the practice range for area law enforcement officers and others.
6. Skeet Field: Next to the range is a beautiful stone concession stand with restrooms and remnants of early ironwork. A skeet tower rose here. Recently, the enclosed area was used as a storage yard for the surrounding nature preserve.
7. Old Picnic Unit: This nearly forgotten glen with a barbecue grill and tables is just off Rollingwood Drive, one of quite a few clusters in the park dating back to the 1930s that could still serve for family reunions or weekend outings.
8. Butler Window: This striking brick aperture with granite trim and terracotta insets once decorated the Victorian Butler house near Wooldridge Park. The family, which owned several local brickworks, is the namesake of Butler Park near Auditorium Shores.
9. Bickler Cupola: This elegant red and white structure looks like a gazebo, but it once rested atop the Bickler Academy, a large school building opened by German educator Jacob Bickler in 1892. It once stood on East 11th Street but was demolished during urban renewal after the construction of Interstate 35.
10. Zilker Botantical Garden: Almost anyone who has lived in Austin for a few years has given into curiosity and paid a visit to this fenced oasis. They discover that it is not laid out like a traditional arboretum, but rather is the brainchild of more than 50 community garden clubs that asked for the land. The most memorable section, the Japanese Garden, was designed and executed by Isamu Tanaguchi and opened in 1969.
11. Esperanza School House: Austin likes to move endangered buildings to parks and squares. Sometimes the move works, as in this case, in which this 1866 one-room schoolhouse that had stood where MoPac hits Spicewood Springs Road has been meticulously preserved.
12. Swedish Log Cabin: Moved more than once, this 1838 Govalle cabin is outfitted with furniture and decor from the 19th century. The first thing anyone notices is the size: It would almost serve as a modern dollhouse. One learns from the historical marker that “Govalle” means “grazing land” in Swedish.
13. Knights of Columbus Building: This Catholic service group was among those who provided families with recreational opportunities in the park. The 1959 building pair includes one that is decorated with old KC shields.
14. McBeth Recreation Center: Placed here in the 1950s, still lively McBeth might as well be invisible to the city at large. A full range of family activities can be had here — all with a mid-century vintage feel.
15. Girl Scout Hut. If anything, this cabin with its matching stone fireplaces and cantilevered timber windows is more impressive than the old Boy Scout Hut. The difference: The girls still use it after 80 years, so it’s off limits to the general public. Too bad, because the dark-wood interior is a treat.
16. Sunshine Camp: The 101-year-old Young Men’s Business League originally put together this summer camp in the 1920s for kids with tuberculosis. Now it serves all sorts of children. The league is constructing a new, much larger building in this grove, which also holds a small concrete-and-stone 1930s amphitheater with a campfire area.
17. Rock Garden: Visitors to the Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater who have shimmied up and down the stone steps here probably wondered about the hollows carved out from the low cliff. Back in the 1930s, they held water and decorative plants. Now they look like archaeological remnants.
18. Moonlight Tower: The only time this remnant of the 1890s — one of 17 super-lamps remaining in town — receives attention is during the holidays, when it is decorated as the Zilker Christmas Tree. The rest of the year, the skeletal tower, moved here in the 1960s, tends to disappear into the picnic and disc golf surroundings.
19. Bandstand: This bulky concrete structure doesn’t look like much these days, but it was a magnet for entertainment in decades past. Incongruous picnic tables now sit where a band would have performed.
20. Lavaca Lamp Posts: A series of historical street lamps formerly lined Lavaca Street all the way past the Scottish Rite Theater. Now they are scattered in Zilker Park. A few can be found in this parking lot.
21. Caretaker’s Lodge: This publication has documented the families who lived in this small house while overseeing the park. Workers plan to start work on its restoration very soon.
22. Demo Fallout Shelter: Government officials cut the ribbons on this prototype shelter meant to show Austinites how to survive a nuclear attack. The waterlogged spot, featured in the short 1960 TV film, “Target Austin,” is firmly locked, but one might spot the door near the lodge.
23. Sunken Garden: The only reason that we can swim in Barton Springs Pool is because the highly endangered Barton Springs salamander lives in the closely monitored early 20th century Eliza Springs north of the pool — seen easily as one enters the gates — and in the Sunken Garden, a 1939 National Youth Administration project to the east, farther off the beaten path. It is beautifully landscaped and protected.
24. Replica Log House: Who knows? Somebody out there could tell the story of this little cabin plopped at the entrance to the parking lot east of Barton Springs, but historian McKnight is stumped. It appears to be a replica, not the real thing. Nearby are real 1928 stone baseball diamond bunkers, reputedly the oldest in town.
How did all these fascinating structures get here?
Most of the land was donated by Andrew Zilker to the school district in 1917, which then sold it to the city in the 1920s. Back then, what is now the park was sparsely populated and decidedly rural, with fields of vegetables and livestock. A wooden bathhouse served Barton Springs.
All that changed during the Depression.
“Austin was the largest beneficiary of Civilian Conservation Corps work,” says René Barrera, manager of the parks system’s nature preserves and an expert on that period of park building. “We can thank architect Charles Paige, who was aggressive in getting those federal grants.”
Zilker needs another Paige.
Recently, advocates have been able to squeeze extra money from the city budget for the cash-strapped Parks and Recreation Department. Yet the department has also leaned heavily on large corporate donations from events organizers such as C3 Presents, which stages, among other things, ACL Fest and the Austin Food and Wine Festival in the parks.
Another option: Public-private partnerships known as conservancies. The Pease Park Conservancy, for instance, is in the final stages of gaining approval for a master plan to revitalize historic green spaces along Shoal Creek. Meanwhile, the Waller Creek Conservancy has come up with a grander vision for the shores of its waterway after the opening of a flood-control tunnel.
Parks leaders would like to see such a partnership for Zilker, not unlike the one that is part of the team redoing Barton Springs Pool. That is one reason McKnight has given three-hour tours of hidden Zilker to potential backers.
“We are at a tipping point,” McKnight says about Zilker’s lesser-known treasures. “We have to wonder how will it look in 30 or 40 years. We need legacy builders.”