By Kim McKnight, Cultural Resource Specialist, Austin Parks and Recreation Department
One of Austin’s original historic downtown squares will come to life this weekend after a much-deserved year of restoration and repair. The celebration for the reopening of Wooldridge Square kicks off early Friday morning with a ribbon-cutting celebration. Two days of fun and family-friendly activities follow, ending with a Saturday night concert featuring the Austin Symphony Big Band.
Wooldridge Square dates to the Waller Plan of 1839, when the City of Austin was surveyed and platted as the capital of the Republic of Texas (1836–1845). In 1909, Austin Mayor A.P. Wooldridge led a beautification effort to formally dedicate Wooldridge Square as a park. The 1.75-acre park sits directly south of the Travis County Courthouse and is characterized by its unusual bowl-shaped topography resulting in a natural amphitheater with generous slopes of green grass. The 1910 Classical Revival bandstand, designed by prominent Texas architect Charles Page, is the centerpiece of the park. Wooldridge Square was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and designated as a State Antiquities Landmark (SAL) in 1981. SAL designation gives the Texas Historical Commission (THC) permitting authority over changes made to the park and ensures the historic integrity of the site is preserved. The park is also a City of Austin Historic Landmark.
After the especially unforgiving drought, Wooldridge Park was ready for tender loving care. The park has been closed since June 2012 to allow the Austin Parks and Recreation Department to complete major site improvements, including electrical upgrades, a new irrigation system, the installation of drought-tolerant grass, and the planting of new trees. A further collaboration with Friends of Wooldridge Square and the Austin Parks Foundation resulted in the installation of new benches and trash receptacles, new light fixtures, and a new space for a food vendor and café tables. The historic bandstand also received an extensive maintenance upgrade with new decking, paint, and lighting.
“Wooldridge Park, and the bandstand specifically, is a pure and fairly pristine vignette of an original Austin park,” said Tere O’Connell, AIA, principal with VOH Architects, a firm that donated its time and expertise to the bandstand maintenance project. “The bandstand gives us a clear and unmistakable physical reference point that helps tell the history of public celebration, recreation, and civic involvement in Austin.”
Park advocates, downtown residents, and the business community hope the recent investments in Wooldridge Square will enable the park to once again become the center of civic life in Austin. The park has a long history of hosting performance and political activities. In 1911, Governor Colquitt began the tradition of launching campaigns from the square, followed by Govs. Allan Shivers, Pat Neff, Dan Moody, Jimmy Allred, Jim Ferguson, and W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. Lyndon Baines Johnson famously announced his bid for the U.S. Senate in 1948 at Wooldridge Square.
Despite the excitement about the park’s reopening, there is still work to be done. Future plans for Wooldridge Square include the development of a long-term master plan to guide the development of programming at the park, as well as more extensive physical improvements to address access and shade. As a stakeholder in this planning process, the THC will work to ensure the historic character of the park is showcased while allowing for compatible improvements.
In the meantime, Austinites will enjoy a weekend of celebration. For more information about the Wooldridge Square Grand Reopening, visit the Downtown Austin Alliance website. Learn how to support Wooldridge by visiting the Friends of Wooldridge Square Facebook page.
Guest blogger Kim McKnight is the THC’s former Texas Main Street Program Coordinator and now a historic preservation partner with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department.
If you like this post, please subscribe to our blog.