Once neglected, Wooldridge Square Park once again a gem

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 Lifestyle

The woman stands upright on the first step of the bandstand. The camera catches her in profile, dressed in summer whites, plunged in full sunlight. A gossamer veil billows from her wide-brimmed hat.

The year, according to one Austin historian, is likely 1915. The place is unquestionably Wooldridge Square Park, one of the city’s four original public squares, transformed from an informal dump into a pristine urban retreat in 1909.

For decades after this photograph was taken — the bandstand was added in 1910 — the bowl-shaped park served as an outdoor venue for concerts, a gathering place for children and a launching pad for statewide political campaigns.

Then it began to disintegrate.

“The grass is dead,” lawyer and parks advocate Richard Craig wrote in 2008. “The ground is bare. The irrigation system is broken. The sidewalk is cracked and crumbling. The trees are in need of an arborist.”

No longer. The city closed the park — named for crusading Mayor A.P. Wooldridge, who pushed for a city parks system — to update the landscaping, mulch the trees, fix the irrigation, reconstruct the bandstand and develop a plan for future activities.

Friday and Saturday, Wooldridge Park reopens with a full slate of concerts, games and other attractions.

The scale is infinitesimal — 1.75 acres out of 100-plus square miles of parks and preserves in the Austin area — yet advocates are ecstatic about the prospect of a new start.

“Austin, in my opinion, has a park system that most cities would be envious to own,” says architectural historian and activist Charles Peveto, whose first Austin home was right across the street from Wooldridge. “I now have hopes, as a downtown resident, we can maintain our important parks in downtown, as well as citywide for the future.”

Wooldridge Square Park sits in a natural basin above a spring. Once, two tiny streams flowed down to Little Shoal Creek, a waterway that wound along Nueces Street to join Shoal Creek just before it disgorges into the Colorado River.

Because of urban development, Little Shoal Creek now runs almost completely underground, an eternal lure for would-be spelunkers.

Back at the city’s birth in 1839, Mayor Edwin Waller had designated this depression a public square for the city’s northwest quadrant. As often was the case in frontier settlements, it turned into something of a cesspool.

One newspaper account called it a “dismal dump, a disposed flaw to the scenery.”

When it rained, a little lake formed in the basin: 50 feet wide, 300 feet long and 4 feet deep. In 1900, the city installed an 18-inch culvert to drain the lake.

The Statesman predicted that year: “It will remain dry hereafter.”

The early 20th century welcomed the determined spread of civic upgrades across the country. Mayor Wooldridge, who had previously organized the city’s first public school system, first Colorado River dam and the main north-south railroad, jumped on board.

Among the “City Beautiful” upgrades for Austin: A civic park.

“It will mark the beginning of the establishment of a system of parks in Austin,” an article in the June 16, 1909, Statesman foresaw. Trees would be preserved and musicals organized. “A very high class of music is assured for these summer concerts. The park will be the nearest indoor playground for the people of Austin.”

(Yes, the reporter used the word “indoor.”)

The Page Brothers Architecure firm — predecessor to today’s Page Southerland Page — designed the simple, square Classical Revival pergola. A flagpole rose from its roof, and its balustrades were soon draped in bunting for holidays, revivals and political rallies.

Citizens donated the $550 to build it. Resident Nelson Davis, who had given $250 for a bandstand, also erected a “handsome drinking fountain.” That ornamental delicacy, seen in early photographs, was later replaced by a rough-hewn stone fountain, pictured in a 1938 image from Boys and Girls Week in the park.

Like Brush Square and Republic Square, the other two squares that survived from the 1839 city plan, Wooldridge Square is actually owned by the state of Texas. It is leased to the city. That lease ends in 2016; it’s expected to be renewed.

Aside from kids in knee britches and adults in their promenading finest, the park’s most prominent users were crowds who gathered for musical concerts or political mass meetings.

During World War I, as many as 10,000 civilians and soldiers, some up from Camp Travis in San Antonio, attended a community sing-along.

“The sing-song was held under the auspices of war camp community service,” reports the Aug. 11, 1918, Statesman. “When the director called for all the married ones in the assembly to sing, a ripple of laughter ran over the crowd. The sergeant was not satisfied with this, however, and before the evening was over, he had called in turn upon the unmarried, those wishing to marry, the children under 16, the men in uniform, the men not in uniform and the ladies. The response of those who desired to marry was noticeably lacking in volume.”

It must be noted that the folk songs included nostalgic odes to the Old South such as “Old Black Joe” and “My Old Kentucky Home” that, in their original versions, would not be welcome at most civic gatherings today.

So was the park, then, exclusively for Austin’s whiter west side? Although the faces recorded in images of Wooldridge Park at the Austin History Center are overwhelming white, African-American children appear alongside white companions in several shots.

A natural auditorium, Wooldridge Park echoed with the stentorian sounds of officeseekers such as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Govs. Allan Shivers, Pat Neff, Dan Moody, Jimmy Allred, Jim Ferguson and W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. Flanked by the art deco Travis County Courthouse and Beaux Arts-style Austin Public Library (now the history center), it became the customary spot to launch a campaign with free food, drink and decorated hand fans.

Once, Ferguson offered $50 to heckler if he’d agree to fight him onstage. Police restrained the man who strained toward the campaigner. “Turn a-loose of me,” he said. “I need that $50!”

Gov. Ross Sterling chose the park as a site to debate Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long long-distance from Baton Rouge, aided by wireless and loudspeakers.

Biographer Robert Caro sets a scene from LBJ’s 1948 senatorial race there: The future president suffered from kidney stones and was in extreme pain. Indefatigably, he leaped from a car, parted the crowd, bound onto the bandstand, threw his Stetson into the crowd and gave a barn-burning speech covered live by 20 radio stations statewide.

“Before TV after World War II, the kickoff speech of every statewide politician was (at) this park,” Haver Currie wrote in a personal note, housed at the history center, in November 1985. You can “trace out the appearance on this stand of would-be governors and U.S. senators and their friends.”

Air conditioning, television and a more sophisticated electorate put a stop to that. As late as 1960, the Texas Public Employee magazine reported, the folksy former governor and U.S. senator O’Daniel made “one last attempt to resurrect a dying tradition” by holding a rally at Wooldridge Square Park.

Despite his “familiar hillbilly musical accompaniment … only a sprinkling of the political faithful turned out.”

After 1960, civic and cultural groups sporadically attempted to revive the park. Musicians played chamber tunes. Actors declaimed Shakespeare. Gamers moved around giant chess pieces.

At times, Wooldridge Square Park reverted to its role as a community-wide gathering spot. In 2001, the Rev. Sterling Lands, pastor of Greater Calvary Baptist Church, spoke to a crowd of 1,000 soon after 9/11.

Yet it appeared the little park was always endangered. In 1966, a large building was proposed for the site, just as a bulky church was raised on the matching former civic square in downtown’s northeast quadrant.

The Wooldridge faithful, however, were not satisfied with the status quo. They sought and obtained historic designations. In 2009, urban planners proposed improved Capitol views, a bus transfer station, underground parking and rigorously scheduled events.

Among those who campaigned tirelessly was historian Peveto.

“I found it interesting to see such a little ‘jewel of a park’ in downtown Austin,” he says. “The fact that it is the cornerstone of an important corridor of significant architectural landmarks was even more intriguing.”

Lawyer Craig, who also campaigns for upgrades to Pease Park, passed by it every day.

“I thought it was embarrassing to have litigants from out of town parade past its desolation,” he says. “James Michener’s ‘Texas’ has a chapter talking about courthouses and courthouse squares being the pride of the community. Every little town would make sure the grass was green on their courthouse lawn, no matter how bad any drought ever got. Simple civic pride.”

True in small towns, but not in Austin?

“This civic pride seemed to have been lost in the midst of all the new über-slick downtown skyline and glitter,” Craig says. “We had lost our way badly with Wooldridge — symbolic of the problems with all of our parks and park funding in this supposed environmental mecca.”

Alarmed by the decline, Peveto and Craig helped form Friends of Wooldridge Square, headed by Michael McGill.

“Austin now has thousands of downtown residents,” Peveto says. “It is important to rehabilitate all of our public parks to benefit all of our community for appropriate park enjoyment.”

Interest by folks like Peveto, Craig and McGill inevitably clashed with the fact that, each day, volunteers with Mobile Loaves and Fishes fed the homeless in the square. As an open public gathering place near a public library, that seemed a natural function. Yet in practice, the meals reinforced an impression that the place was reserved for the homeless, park backers argued. They successfully persuaded Mobile Loaves and Fishes to choose another location.

Once the park was revived, the Friends group teamed with the Austin Downtown Alliance to assure that it will be used for movies, exercise groups, chess tournaments and, once again, community music.

“Hopefully it doesn’t let us rest,” McGill says. “Even after this investment, the park will still have challenges, like a lack of ADA access, a lack of shade on the bandstand or seating areas and similar obstacles. Done right, such enhancements can convey more of the history of this place, while also making it alive in the present and long into the future.”

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