On a small piece of land near the headwaters of the San Antonio River sits a sizeable stone marker, upon which are inscribed the words: “1716 Aqui se celebró la primera misa” – the first mass was celebrated here. This proclamation sits quietly in Miraflores, a former property of Dr. Aureliano Urrutia, an accomplished physician who came to San Antonio from Mexico in 1914.
What remains of Miraflores is now a 4.5-acre parcel of land near the headwaters of the San Antonio River, on Hildebrand Road across from the University of the Incarnate Word.
A man of modest origins, Urrutia was born in 1872 in Xochimilco, once a unique agricultural area built upon a network of lake and canal systems, which is now a suburb of Mexico City and a World Heritage Site. He was an ambitious child, and his education under the broad initiatives of Mexico’s longtime president Porfirio Díaz propelled him to a significant medical career. The doctor built a renowned clinic in historic Coyoacán (also now a suburb of Mexico City) and developed a following as a revered teacher.
Urrutia’s Mexican medical career was derailed by a three-month appointment to Victoriano Huerta’s disastrous regime, from which he quickly resigned and narrowly escaped with his life. After his immigration with his family to the United States in 1914, he continued his practice here in San Antonio, and lived here until his death at the age of 103 in 1975.
Although he was a man of science, Urrutia also loved art, history, music, literature, nature, and community. Through his education, and his travels as a doctor, he matured into a well-rounded man aware of many cultures and influences. As an immigrant to the U.S. at the age of 42 – though thankful for the respite, culture, and openness of San Antonio – he needed to express his memory of his birthplace and his love for Mexico.
Urrutia used Miraflores as his outlet for creative expression, and between 1921 and 1930 he fashioned the property into a fantastical garden of statuary, fountains, pools, and meandering waterways. Even the name, Miraflores, is enigmatic and multi-faceted. The garden was, because of his particular outlook, a detailed lesson in the uniqueness of Hispanic culture – a lesson that, if we can recover it, could be a beautiful gift to our citizens and visitors to our city.
Unfortunately, Miraflores has suffered remarkable decay under ownership by various corporations since Urrutia sold it around 1960 after his retirement at the age of 88. Now flattened, defoliated, and in a struggling state of advanced disrepair, the remnant parcel belongs to the City of San Antonio, which gained the property in a lawsuit settlement with UIW in 2005.
If we are able to salvage it, what significance might this garden have for us today? A look at the enigmatic granite stone boasting a date of 1716 provides some insight. The stone, contrary to its proclamation, is likely not a 300-year-old artifact, but probably was commissioned by the doctor to commemorate an event that was significant to him. What was the “first mass” that was celebrated? Certainly it was not San Antonio’s first mass, which occurred as early as 1691, and it cannot refer to the 1718 establishment of San Antonio as a civilian settlement.
In a collection of writings assembled by his daughter, Refugio, Doctor Urrutia associates 1716 with the first Franciscan mass in Spanish Texas, which may refer to the founding of San Antonio’s Mission San Franciso de la Espada. The mission provided water to surrounding communities via its extensive aqueduct system. Urrutia’s upbringing among the unique water networks of Xochimilco, and the Franciscan church there where he was baptized, would have drawn him to the mission’s similar role. 1716 was an important year for Texas’ first mission, which after 20 years of rejection by indigenous groups, flooding, drought, and disease, finally became established.
Urrutia often saw himself in the context of historical events linked over the centuries. Perhaps Spain’s 1716 return to Texas would be in the doctor’s mind like his own migration to Texas from civil-war torn Mexico. Here in San Antonio, two centuries later, in 1916, reflecting upon Spain’s 1716 successful efforts in Texas, the doctor rededicated himself to his own personal mission – his medical practice.
In pursuit of this, and perhaps in celebration, the doctor built an impressive, large clinic in downtown San Antonio, on Houston and Santa Rosa streets, near the proposed modern-day San Pedro Creek project. There he ministered to many thousands of San Antonians from all walks of life, across the street from the Santa Rosa Hospital, for over 40 years until his retirement in 1960. Family lore attests that he endeavored to keep his prices affordable, and never turned anyone away for inability to pay.
Throughout his career, Urrutia was recognized in the medical world for his advances in surgery, including modernizing the operating room environment and the design of innovative surgical instruments. He was also known as a great teacher, and traveled to Europe, Latin America, and within the U.S. to address physicians and medical students.
During his long life in San Antonio, the large Urrutia family travelled often along the length of Broadway, from the downtown medical complex to the family home located at the midpoint of Brackenridge Park to the gardens at Miraflores, then at the city’s northern edge. The family, which included 16 children from several marriages, produced four physician sons and a pharmacist daughter who became active in the family practice. The family also participated in San Antonio’s civic and cultural life, often hosting concerts and events at the Urrutia home and at Miraflores.
Today, 100 years after Urrutia’s rededication to a new life in Texas, upon the eve of San Antonio’s own Tricentennial, a small collection of artifacts remains at what is left of Miraflores. Although Miraflores encompasses a compelling story of Mexican origins, new beginnings, and a civic life stretching from the headwaters to downtown San Antonio, the garden is all but forgotten by most.
Between 2003 and 2006, Miraflores gained some protection through interest in the sculptures of Dionicio Rodriguez. Urrutia was a major supporter of Rodriguez, and is sometimes credited with bringing the well-known faux bois sculptor from Mexico. Rodriguez brought to life many important aspects of Urrutia’s vision for the garden. Unfortunately, subsequent corporate owners of Miraflores destroyed significant works, including a large Rodriguez fountain, but several smaller works remain, which helped secure a National Register of Historic Places designation.
In 2007/2008, the City of San Antonio commissioned an archaeological study and created a master plan for the property. At that time, of a $600,000 request for minimal intervention, the City approved only $300,000 in funding for some basic repairs to the property. A 2011 Conservation Society article quotes an estimated cost of $8 million for a realistic implementation.
Efforts to save what is left of the property have been hampered by lack of funding, and relief to the property has been much slower than hoped. In 2013, the City modified the property as a part of the area drainage improvement initiative by installing huge drainage culverts through the northwest corner of the property, near the Quinta Maria, a small summerhouse. In return, the City cosmetically repaired the landscape near the house and the wall along the front of the park in the construction area.
Recently, the towered Hildebrand gates to the property were cleaned and repaired, and tiles from the gate towers were removed and replaced. A few small Rodriguez sculptures have also been repaired. However, although Miraflores is officially a part of Brackenridge Park, it is barely mentioned in the Brackenridge Park Master Plan, and is not included in any recommendations for sequenced improvements.
This summer, the Conservation Society published an article in its newsletter stating that the property will soon be open to foot traffic “on a limited basis” through the “restoration of a walkway leading from Brackenridge Park into Miraflores.”
How to highlight this property on the City of San Antonio’s growing list of ambitious development plans is a mystery and a challenge. The idea of people visiting the garden in its current fragile state is both exciting and frightening. The possibility of current and future decay is an urgent problem. “Restoration” efforts are painstakingly slow after decades of neglect and destruction. The garden as it was is certainly lost to time. What remains to be seen is whether we will forge a way to remember it or not.