Mysterious San Antonio garden explored in new book

Kim J. Clark

At the corner of Broadway and Hildebrand, in the second and third decades of the last century, on a corner of land nourished by the waters of the San Antonio River, partially hidden by once-dense foliage, an extraordinary expatriate and survivor of the Mexican Revolution created an ornately designed garden refuge, his personal Xanadu.

He called it simply Miraflores, but there was nothing simple about it.

Author Anne Elise Urrutia says Miraflores sustained her great-grandfather, Dr. Aureliano Urrutia, throughout the decades of his self-imposed yet highly productive exile in San Antonio. He died in 1975 at the age of 103.

Now, after 10 years of dedicated research on a project that began in her youth as conversations with her father, Dr. Aureliano A. Urrutia, she has produced a multilayered book in which she has reassembled the broken shards of both Miraflores and its creator.

“Miraflores: San Antonio’s Mexican Garden of Memory” was published in June by Trinity University Press’ Maverick Books imprint.

Elise Urrutia started learning about her legendary great-grandfather on long drives with her father to and from her alma mater, Colorado College. In time, those conversations took on a more concrete form.

“My father used to give public talks about ‘the other Dr. Urrutia,’ which was his tongue-in-cheek way of referring to him since he was also a doctor,” she said in a recent interview, “and I helped him with those talks.”

The Calzada del 2 de Abril entry drive to Miraflores as it appeared in 1978. The entry and the bust of Porfirio Díaz in the distance no longer exist.

The Calzada del 2 de Abril entry drive to Miraflores as it appeared in 1978. The entry and the bust of Porfirio Díaz in the distance no longer exist.

“He really got to me.”

Urrutia started to visit her father on Saturdays to dig into the family archive. Then, in 2012, she got his blessing to write a book about their ancestor — and all the archival papers.

“My approach was different from my father’s,” she said. “While he shared the myths and legends about my great-grandfather, I was interested in finding the facts.”

It will be clear to anyone who reads the beautifully designed, profusely illustrated and exhaustively annotated “Miraflores” that Urrutia has indeed taken great pains to uncover the facts about the man, his times, his family and, above all, his garden.

A tiled bench is among the remains of Miraflores, the 4.5-acre garden developed by Dr. Aureliano Urrutia.

A tiled bench is among the remains of Miraflores, the 4.5-acre garden developed by Dr. Aureliano Urrutia.

Jerry Lara / San Antonio Express-News

The multilayered garden embodied the confluence of Nahuatl and Spanish cultures, of art and science, that characterized the Mexico Dr. Urrutia left behind in 1914: statuary of Aztec gods and heroes; elegant pools and fountains; brilliantly colored Talavera-tiled benches; the iconic arched gateway illustrated with ceramic jaguar, eagle and peacock imagery beneath the vigilance of the Virgin of Guadalupe; the trabajo rustico benches of Dionisio Rodriguez and other artists; and the surrealistic tower-library standing sentinel above it all.

The man-made art shared the garden with a rich pattern of flora such as ahuehuete trees, medicinal herbs, irises, water lilies and climbing roses.

By Anne Elise

Maverick Books

144 pages, $32.95

To Elise Urrutia, it is very much a “Mexican Garden of Memory,” dedicated in many ways to Dr. Aureliano Urrutia’s late wife, Luz Fernanda, who died in 1921 just before he bought the property.

Urrutia credits Katherine O’Rourke, a professor of art history at Trinity University who had written about her great-grandfather’s extraordinary art collection, with supporting her research early on.

“I am very indebted to her,” she said. “It is not always the case that an academic researcher is so warm toward a member of the family that is a focus of their research.”

She also credits a group of Mexico City scholars for giving her a tour of her great-grandfather’s native town of Xochimílco in 2018. It is an area that once was famous for its gardens derived from local waterways known as chinampas.

“They took me to the cathedral where he was baptized and showed me the site where he built a hacienda,” she said. “It was an amazing experience that changed my life.”

Portrait of Dr. Aureliano Urrutia, circa 1930s

Portrait of Dr. Aureliano Urrutia, circa 1930s

That visit gave her a visceral understanding of her great-grandfather’s love of water and of gardens, she said.

It also may have inspired Urrutia’s unique approach to the design of her book, which allows readers to fantasize traveling back in time to the days when the garden was intact.

“There are five chapters,” she writes, “one for each section of the garden (entrance, esplanade, pond, plaza and Quinta Maria). Each chapter ends with a sidebar focusing on an aspect of the garden (Talavera, artists, water, statues and women) and highlighting some of the thematic threads that permeated Urrutia’s thinking and expression.”

For students of San Antonio’s cultural history, one of the most interesting features of the book is a discussion of Dr. Urrutia’s friendship with Atlee B. Ayres, one of the city’s most prominent architects of the early 20th century.

Ayres had “an obsession” with Talavera tile, Urrutia writes, that led him to Miraflores to photograph the tileworks there during the Depression when architectural business dried up.

Out of their shared love of Talavera tile, and no doubt many other interests, the two men worked together to bring the American Institute of Architects to Miraflores during its 1931 convention. Dr. Urrutia hosted a fiesta there that made an enormous impression on the convention attendees.

“Many of the architects wrote to my great-grandfather telling him that they had never had such an extraordinarily rich experience of another culture as they had at Miraflores,” Urrutia said.

The truth behind Miraflores garden is explored in a new book.

The truth behind Miraflores garden is explored in a new book.

If Miraflores was multifaceted, so was its creator.

Born to humble parents, Aureliano Urrutia was a brilliant student who attracted the admiration and support of Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, who assisted with his medical education. After distinguished military service, he enjoyed a brilliant career in Mexico City as director of the Escuela Nacional de Medicina de México and the Sanatorio Urrutia, a hospital complex he founded in a suburb of Mexico City.

He also served a brief stint in government, but during the Mexican Revolution Urrutia and his large family were fortunate to leave Mexico alive on May 23, 1914, accompanied by U.S. troops “as the sole passengers aboard a military ship from Veracruz to Galveston,” Elise Urrutia writes.

“He was invited to return to Mexico in 1929,” Urrutia said, ”but he decided to stay and make San Antonio his home. He became a U.S. citizen in 1942.”

In his foreword to “Miraflores,” critic and scholar Tomás Ybarra-Frausto paints a highly evocative portrait of Dr. Urrutia in his new life as a surgeon at Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio as seen through the eyes of a boy who accompanied his abuelito to the nearby Clínica Urrutia for checkups.

He found the doctor, surrounded by religious paintings and an X-ray machine, to be “humble, kind and benevolent.”

“Urrutia sometimes attended early mass at San Fernando Cathedral,” Ybarra-Frausto writes, clad in a “dashing capa española that accented his indigenous features,” with his “huaraches making a swish-swish sound” as he walked down the aisle.

Elise Urrutia concludes “Miraflores” with a candid assessment of how the garden fell into ruin while under corporate ownership and of the restoration challenges facing its current owner, the city of San Antonio. Both she and Ybarra-Frausto express the hope that the garden, now part of Brackenridge Park, may be restored as an educational and cultural resource for the people of San Antonio.

If it is time for a restoration of Miraflores, Urrutia said, “it is also time for Dr. Urrutia to be restored to the history of San Antonio.”

Ed Conroy is a freelance writer in San Antonio.

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