- Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
As you slosh your toes in Barton Springs, curl up on a blanket at the outdoor theater or run barefoot through the grassy lawn this summer, take a moment to wish the crown jewel of Austin’s park system a happy 100th.
Yep, Zilker Park marks a century as Austin’s collective backyard in 2017, and the Austin Parks Foundation, along with a slew of organizations that operate within its boundaries, will celebrate all year long.
In 1917, local businessman and politician Andrew Zilker donated more than 350 acres of land to the school district, which in turn sold it to the city for a park. Since then it’s grown into our most loved green space, a spot for soaring soccer balls, romping dogs, gliding kayaks, clattering trains and cannonball splashes into the best spring-fed pool on the planet.
The party starts with Free Day on April 9, when nearly everything at the park — from parking to admission to Barton Springs and rides on the Zilker Zephyr miniature train — will cost nothing. That same day, officials will open the newly renovated Zilker Caretaker Cottage next to the pool, read a Zilker 100 proclamation and unveil a special mobile Zilker 100 art installation perfect for selfies.
“It will be kind of a rallying cry to celebrate the 100th anniversary and get people to come out and enjoy the park,” says Colin Wallis, executive director of the Austin Parks Foundation, a nonprofit organization that’s spearheading the celebration along with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department and other groups.
“Zilker Park is Austin’s Central Park — it’s the park everybody loves,” Wallis says. “We think it’s a big deal — an opportunity to highlight organizations that are doing great work in and around Zilker and how lucky we are as Austinites to have such a great park.”
More than 1.3 million people visit Zilker each year, based on numbers tracked through festival attendance, admission to Barton Springs and ticket sales to events. When you factor in folks just dropping by for some outdoor rambling, that number exceeds 1.5 million, according to Kimberly McNeeley, acting director of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department.
The park encompasses much more than Barton Springs and the Great Lawn, where workers harvested vegetables and delivered them to a market on East Seventh Street for free distribution during the Great Depression, too.
It includes the Zilker Park Clubhouse, built in the mid-1930s, which now hosts weddings, meetings and other functions, the Austin Nature and Science Center, the Zilker Botanical Garden, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, the McBeth Recreation Center, the Girl Scout Hut, the Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater, the moonlight tower that transforms into the Zilker Tree every December, and the trailhead leading to the Barton Creek greenbelt. The Sunshine Camp takes place at the park every year, too, as does the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
“There are so many people who made some of their first memories at Zilker — riding the Zilker Zephyr, going to ACL, doing their first cannonball into Barton Springs, taking that first spin under the Zilker Tree, the first time they got to fly a kite with 15,000 others at the kite fest,” McNeeley says. “It is an iconic jewel, and the parks department is honored to act as steward of that place and part of the memories being made there.”
On this summer’s agenda at the park? Blues on the Green concerts on May 24, June 14, July 12 and Aug. 2, and Zilker Theatre performances of “The Wizard of Oz” from July 7 through Aug. 12.
As far back as 9,000 years, Native Americans walked the banks of Barton Creek. Early settlers lived along the creek. Infrastructure at the park itself came thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
“Very few people understand Zilker is one of great Civilian Conservation Corps parks, but you see it in the Ashford-McGill House (at the Austin Nature and Science Center), the Zilker Clubhouse and the Girl Scout Hut, as well as landscape features, from picnic tables to drainage features and those iconic entry columns,” says Kim McKnight, historic preservation planner and cultural resource manager for the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. “From a historic standpoint I think we take for granted how significant it is to have 350 acres at the apex of the city, where Barton Springs enters into the river.”
The park also stands as a testament to the city’s philanthropic side.
“It shows the rich history of giving and community that defines Austin,” says J.J. Langston, executive director of the Barton Springs Conservancy. “Andrew Zilker gave the gift of the land that now makes up Zilker Park in 1917, and we have loved and cherished and celebrated that park through these past 100 years because of his gift.”
This year also marks the 70th birthday of the bathhouse at Barton Springs, which was designed and built in 1947 by Dan Driscoll. The Barton Springs Conservancy is working on a $2 million rehabilitation of the facility, funded through private donations and a 2012 city bond. Construction is set to begin in 2019.
A fundraising Bash for the project is set for May 11 at the Driskill, and a public Splash — complete with a parade and plunge into Barton Springs, plus birthday cake — will take place May 13 at the pool. The event coincides with Lucy Baines Johnson’s 70th birthday this year, and she’s serving as honorary chair.
So what’s the best way to celebrate? We recommend hoisting a beer — a special one from Zilker Brewing Company that notes the 100th anniversary and is called Parks & Rec. A draft version is available at restaurants now, and cans will hit store shelves in May. The idea, says brewery co-founder Patrick Clark, meshes with the company’s values of enabling and encouraging community through beer — and they say theirs perfectly caps a day of hiking the greenbelt, flinging a Frisbee or standup paddling on Lady Bird Lake.
“We do a lot of small batch experimentation and developed a unique hop formula we’re excited to use for the first time in this beer,” Clark says. “The result is a nice light, crisp, clean and citrusy beer.”