The Austin Parks and Recreation Department has been the trusted steward of the city’s parklands since 1928. Their duties not only include protecting and maintaining parks, pools, and recreation centers, but also preserving and advocating for pieces of Austin’s history so that these important and beautiful places will be around for future generations to enjoy.
The City of Austin is rich with history and culture, boasting a variety of cherished landmarks that elevate the area. From its stunning springs to its quaint museums, each gem tells a story of Old Austin while informing the present, as a reminder of how far the city has come and will continue to thrive. Take a look at the various histories of Austin’s most iconic monuments for a celebration of then and now.
Zilker Park is one of Austin’s treasures and the recreational hub of the city. Within the 385-acre park is Barton Springs Pool, arguably the city’s jewel-in-the-crown. The three-acre pool is fed by underground Barton Springs, which arises from the Edwards Aquifer. With average water temperatures of 68 to 70 degrees, the pool is ideal for year-round swimming. This is where actor Robert Redford learned to swim as a kid, while visiting family in Austin. Today, on busy summer days, more than 2,000 bathers enter through the Bathhouse gate to enjoy the refreshing waters.
The Barton Springs area has a long and rich history, dating back to Native American times. As the small capital of Austin grew following Texas independence from Mexico, local citizens used the cool spring waters for bathing, relaxation, and as a source of drinking water. As more people settled around Barton Creek, mills began popping up along the banks, and bathers continued to use the springs as a favorite recreation spot.
Several hundred thousand visitors enter Barton Springs Pool and the historic 1947 Barton Springs Bathhouse each year. Today, the area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and continues to be a treasured landmark.
Brush Square Museums
When Edwin Waller laid out the City of Austin in 1839, he designated four squares as open public space. As one of the original parks, today Brush Square is home to the rich histories of Susanna Dickinson, O. Henry, and Austin firefighters. The three sites are dedicated to showcasing the vibrant lives of these legends.
Celebrate the “Messenger of the Alamo” by visiting the Susanna Dickinson Museum, the one-time residence of the woman who survived the 1836 Battle of the Alamo and carried the news of its fall to General Sam Houston. Her eyewitness account of the Battle of the Alamo remains a benchmark for historians. Inside, history buffs can get their fill of rare Dickinson family artifacts or peruse a library area that details the history of Texan frontier women.
For lovers of literature, the former residence of famed author William Sydney Porter, best known as O. Henry, is a must-see. The writer of such classics as The Gift of the Magi and The Ransom of Red Chief, the museum offers unpublished manuscripts, original photographs and correspondence, as well as various furniture and decor from his former home.
In the historic 1938 Central Fire Station No. 1, you’ll find the Austin Fire Museum. The site features uniforms, photographs, equipment, and memorabilia dating back to the 1870s. Celebrate these hometown heroes and honor their dedication to the safety of our citizens.
The remaining slices of their stories rest in each celebrated site—history awaits visitors at Brush Square.
Covert Park at Mt. Bonnell
Mount Bonnell, a 784-foot-high promontory along Lake Austin, is among the most significant natural and historical landmarks in Austin. Managed by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD), the site has served as a popular attraction since the mid-1800s. Each year, thousands of visitors ascend the stone stairs to the summit of Mount Bonnell, taking in sweeping panoramic views of the lake, downtown, and the western hills of Austin.
The limestone rock composed landmark is cited as an early location for May Pole celebrations in the 1850s and 1860s. Like many other recreational sites in Austin, such as Deep Eddy and Barton Springs, Mt. Bonnell was sometimes the site of entertainment and performances. The 1969 Official Texas Historical Marker references a stunt in 1898, when Miss Hazel Keyes, trailed by her monkey “Miss Jennie Yan Yan,” slid down a cable stretched from the top of Mount Bonnell to south bank of then Lake McDonald below.
Mt. Bonnell has been the subject of many legends over the decades, and local lore also named the summit “Antonette’s Leap” in memory of a woman who allegedly jumped to her death following the murder of her fiancé. Another legend of unknown origin is that a couple would fall in love on the first visit to Mount Bonnell, become engaged on the second visit, and marry on the third. Perhaps this is the reason so many people choose to get engaged at the summit.
PARD is the steward of numerous historic resources and Mt. Bonnell is among the most significant landmarks in the city. The restoration of the 1936 Covert Monument, completed in 2015, helped raise awareness about the critical importance of cultural landscape features at historic sites.
Downs Mabson Field
Downs Field has been synonymous with baseball and the African American community of East Austin since the 1940s. Downs Field was first built at 12th and Springdale Streets as an enclosed, lighted field with grandstand seating for 600 in 1949. In 1954, it was moved to its present location at 12th and Alexander. The field was named in honor of Reverend Karl Downs (1912-1948), the recently deceased president of Samuel Huston College, a historically black college located in East Austin, where he doubled both enrollment and the number of buildings on campus during his tenure.
The site was first used as Samuel Huston College’s baseball stadium and where the Austin Black Senators, the first Negro League Baseball team in the city, played beginning in 1927. Famous hometown hero and National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, Willie Wells, began his baseball career with the Black Senators, and notable players such as Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Smokey Joe Williams, and Buck O’Neil played baseball here. Later, it was the stadium of the 1942 state champion L.C. Anderson High School football team. It has been the onetime home of Hilton Smith and Richard Lane, players who were later inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame respectively. Downs Field continues to be used today by Huston-Tillotson University, a historically black university, and the Austin Metro Baseball League.
Elisabet Ney Museum
Designed by German-American sculptor Elisabet Ney, an accomplished sculptor in both her native Germany and Texas, the Elisabet Ney Museum is a tribute to turn of the twentieth century Texas and the life of a woman who was a pioneer of the arts in the Lone Star State.
Formosa, as Ney called her art studio, was built in 1892 and expanded in 1902. Ney designed and oversaw construction of the rustic studio, which is Gothic Revival with Neoclassical influences, and is surrounded by a highly naturalized landscape. The building and its grounds reflect the Romantic influence that coursed through Ney’s life and work.
After Ney’s death in 1907, a group of prominent Texas women art patrons formed the Texas Fine Arts Association, and Formosa became one of the first art museums in Texas in 1911. The City of Austin assumed ownership in 1941, and it is now managed through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. The Elisabet Ney Museum was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1972, and is one of 40 museums in the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program.
Admission is free to view the collection of originals and replicas of Ney’s works, along with many of her personal belongings. Included among the variety of sculptures and decorations on display are the artist’s portraits of William Jennings Bryan, Sam Houston, and Stephen F. Austin, as well as European aristocrats Otto von Bismarck, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Arthur Schopenhauer. The museum offers a range of educational programs, exhibits, special events, and workshops.
Mayfield Park and Nature Preserve
Lush with native plants and historic landscaping, Mayfield Park and Preserve is a must-see for nature-lovers visiting Austin. The house and gardens that make up Mayfield-Gutsch Estate are a picturesque composition drawn from landscape styles prevalent during the early 20th century, cultivated over nearly 50 years of care and hard work by the Gutsch family before becoming a public park in 1971.
Purchased in 1909 by Allison Mayfield, a prominent politician who served as chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, the property became a summer residence for the Mayfield family. Following the death of Allison in 1923 and his wife in 1924, his daughter Mary Mayfield Gutsch began creating the gardens we see today, with her husband Milton directing the building of the ponds and garden features with the help of Steve Arrdondo, resident gardener for many years.
Peacocks freely wander the grounds, a fixture in Mayfield since a pair of the birds was gifted to the family in 1935. The house and grounds are unified through thoughtful landscaping, including a pergola, trellises, porches, foundation plantings, walks, terraces and a collection of lily ponds that dissolve the boundaries between the two.
In addition to the home and impeccable gardens, there are 21 acres of scenic hiking trails teeming with wildlife that surround the estate. The trails’ access points can be found near the home.
Oakwood Cemetery and Chapel
Austin’s first city cemetery and oldest municipal burial ground was established on the northeast corner of the original town plat when the first burial allegedly occurred in 1839, about the same time the city of Austin was officially established as the capital of the Republic of Texas. From its very start of ten acres known then as the City Cemetery, it reflects the diversity of Austin’s people, places, and stories that built the great city beyond its gates. Today, the cemetery has over 20,000 burials on 40 acres and still continues to receive a handful of new burials. Oakwood is unique in that its population reflects the diversity of Austin’s history, with burial plots for African Americans, Mexican Americans, Jewish people, and many of the pioneers, known and unknown, who built Austin.
Just near the west entrance of the cemetery lies the Oakwood Chapel, built in 1914 by Austin architect Charles Page. While the Gothic Revival-style building was originally made for funeral services, it was eventually renovated and now functions as a visitors’ center. The chapel’s steep gables, pointed arched windows, and rustic edges are quite a sight. Its restoration has won awards from Preservation Texas and Preservation Austin and is considered a major milestone in the care of the city’s cemeteries.
The cemetery including the Chapel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and remains a testament to the importance of preserving such historic and sacred sites. The Oakwood Chapel Visitor Center is a great place to kick off your tour to this fascinating piece of Austin history.
The Old Bakery and Emporium
The Old Bakery Building has been an Austin icon on Congress Avenue since 1876, when Swedish immigrant Charles Lundberg opened one of the city’s largest and most successful bakeries there. Known for such tasty treats as almond meal macaroons, Sally bread, glazed kisses, and much-loved five-inch-long ladyfingers, the Old Bakery remained a popular snack spot for locals and visitors alike for more than 60 years, passed down from one independent Swedish baker to the next until 1937. You can spot one baker’s name—George Siglhofer—engraved into the cement sidewalk in front of the building, a testament to the Old Bakery’s long history. While the Old Bakery no longer serves the city with fresh bread and pastries, today you can still stop by the prime Congress Avenue location to gaze up at the large stone eagle set in flight atop the building, one of its most notable architectural features.
The Heritage Society of Austin purchased the building in 1963 and the Junior League paid for restoration efforts, and it is now open to the public as a tourist information center and curio shop with unique souvenirs. An upstairs museum houses the Lundberg-Maerki Historical Collection, featuring an assortment of antique pans and paddles and other interesting items from the Lundberg and Maerki families. There is also an Art Gallery exhibiting local artists age 50 or better.
In the heart of downtown Austin sits a historic square with sloping green hills and a charming classical revival-style white bandstand in its center. Despite its modest size—just a bit over an acre—Wooldridge Square looms large in Austin’s history.
Wooldridge Square is unique as the only public square in Austin to have retained such a high degree of historic integrity since its establishment in 1909. When the first city plans were drawn in 1840, four such squares were included. The other three underwent various uses over time, hosting parking lots, a fire station, a church, a museum, and businesses. Wooldridge Square alone has remained an essential element of Austin’s outdoor social, musical, and political life. The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
A.P. Wooldridge, for whom the square is named, was president of City National Bank and served as Austin’s mayor from 1909 to 1919. He was also prominent in many local and state affairs, including establishing the Austin Independent School District.
Many Texas governors and the nation’s most influential figures, including President Lyndon B. Johnson and Booker T. Washington, have used Wooldridge Square for public addresses. Today, the park’s location makes it a favorite spot for picnics, poetry readings, studying, and even small weddings.
Zilker Botanical Garden
Situated at the top of a hill in the northwest area of the Zilker Park, the Zilker Botanical Garden site is one of Zilker Park’s most important midcentury developments. The Zilker Botanical Garden was conceived as a planned collection of independently designed gardens managed by regional garden clubs in addition to the Austin Area Garden Center building, which was dedicated in 1964. The Botanical Garden has become a place that offers enjoyment of some of Austin’s most beautiful gardens and provides education about gardening skills.
This 26-acre park consists of 12 different gardens whose aspects change as new garden techniques evolve. Its diverse topography is especially suited to depicting different habitats and displaying an array of native, hybrid, and exotic plants. From the Doug Blachly Butterfly Garden to the Taniguchi Japanese Garden located near the beautiful Hamilton Azalea Garden, visitors see a myriad of ponds, streams, and waterfalls in addition to the gardens. The unique Hartman Prehistoric Garden, which recreates a Cretaceous dinosaur habitat, is the site where more than 100 tracks made by six or seven reptiles along with the bones of an ancient turtle were found in 1992. It features a life-size sculpture of an Ornithomimus, the dinosaur that left tracks of its three toed feet in the gardens. Open year-round, over 125,000 people walk through the garden annually.