Pump Station No. 2: Brackenridge, Borglum, and Beyond - Journal of San Antonio

Pump Station No. 2: Brackenridge, Borglum, and Beyond

Andrew Gaul

At the southern end of Brackenridge Park, just off Broadway on Millrace Street, stands a small, unassuming stone building that has witnessed over a century of progress, art, and culture in San Antonio. George Washington Brackenridge, the great South Texas businessman and philanthropist, first built “Pump Station No. 2” as part of the expansion of his San Antonio Water Works Company in 1885. Brackenridge had acquired the water works in 1883 through debts owed him for funding the initial construction of pipes for original owner, Jean Baptiste LaCoste. Brackenridge delighted in drilling for new wells, and worked tirelessly to meet the city’s burgeoning water needs. However, by the late 1890s, as Brackenridge’s business and personal life began to draw him further away from the San Antonio River, he slowly relinquished his claim over the headwaters. In 1899, he handed over 199 acres along the river to the city as a public park that took his name; in 1897, Mother Madeleine Chollet of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word wrestled his 280 acre estate - and his beloved library - from his grasp; and in 1905, he finally sold his interest in what would later become the San Antonio Water System to George Kobusch. In 1915, artesian wells supplied the entire city’s water, and the Millrace pump house fell into abandonment.

In 1924, the Texas Trail Drivers Association lured John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum to San Antonio. They hoped to persuade him to accept a commission for a monument to the pioneers who once drove the legendary Texas longhorn herds across the state, on the same scale as Borglum’s Wars of America in Newark, New Jersey. Borglum, anxious to move on after his infamous Stone Mountain incident in Georgia, became intrigued at the project and accepted. He took up residence at the Menger Hotel, and set out to look for a workspace. He soon found the old pump station, and obtained a lease from the city for to use it as his studio while he conducted his research for the Trail Drivers piece. The renowned sculptor spent almost $7,000 remodeling the old building, and constructing a 650 square foot wood-frame addition, complete with skylights. Once settled, the artist set to work.

Borglum produced some of his most famous and ambitious sculptures during his thirteen years at the San Antonio studio. As promised, he completed the Trail Drivers model, a forty-foot masterpiece that was to stand in front of the downtown Municipal Auditorium, but due to funding issues, never came to fruition. The model sat for years in the Witte Museum until 1942, when Borglum’s son, Lincoln, cast it in bronze, on a much smaller scale. It now stands in front of the Texas Rangers Museum, adjacent to the Witte in Brackenridge Park. Borglum also cast his North Carolina Memorial, and many illustrious figures, including Robert Ingersoll, the noted agnostic; Alexander H. Stephens, the Confederate Vice President; and opera singer Mary Garden. Two of his Brackenridge studio sculptures came under fire by Germany’s Third Reich, which Borglum despised from its early days. The first, his great rendering of Woodrow Wilson that stood in Poznan, was melted for ammunition when the Nazis moved into Poland. His depiction of Thomas Paine met a somewhat better fate, as the owner of the foundry in Paris where it was cast later revealed he had buried the statue on his property upon Hitler’s invasion.

But of all the works Gutzon Borglum fashioned in that small Brackenridge Park studio, none came to greater fame than his models for the massive faces for Mount Rushmore. The original figures for Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln all came from San Antonio, and both Gutzon and son constantly traveled back and forth from the Alamo City to the Black Hills of South Dakota in preparation of the project. Borglum lived to see each of the four faces emerge on the mountainside, but Lincoln finished the last details of his father’s masterpiece after his death in 1941.

Just before Borglum left the Pump Station in 1937 due to maintenance disputes, he turned his key over to Ellen Quillin, director of the Witte Museum. Quillin worked out a deal with the city to allow the museum to host art classes in the studio, and soon attracted artists Henry Lee McFee and Boyer Gonzalez to set up a permanent operation there. In 1939, the San Antonio Art League, under the leadership of artists Mary Aubrey Keating and Josephine Kinkaid, held a ball to raise funds for a permanent art school at the pump house. Their efforts successful, the Art League continued to sponsor the school under different directors until the demands of World War II forced the school to close in 1942. Ellen Quillin, anxious to see the project survive, persuaded Jesse Marion Koogler McNay to refurbish an old aviary on her estate, now the McNay Art Museum, so the artists might relocate. With renovation completed in 1943, the school reopened as the San Antonio Art Institute. The Institute grew in fame and popularity over the years, and in 1946, once again offered commercial art classes in the old Borglum studio to veterans of the war. The city continued to lease the pump house to numerous artists and classes until 1961, when it abandoned the property once again.

By the late 1970s, a series of storms had taken their toll on the old studio, causing the Borglum addition’s roof to collapse. In 1980, the Friends of the Parks took an interest in the dilapidated property, then overgrown with ivy and hidden amid pecan and oak trees. They leased the property from the Parks and Recreation Department, at a cost of one dollar per year, in the hopes of raising both awareness and renovation funds. By 1984, they had collected $14,000, far from the projected $150,000 cost of the project. In that same year, the architectural firm of Joe Stubblefield and Richard Mogas, who had succeeded in adding the building to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, contracted with the Friends of the Parks to restore the landmark. They agreed that if the Friends would provide the $14,000 already collected, the firm would furnish the remainder of the funding, and would move their offices to the location upon completion, with 150 square feet left for use as the Friends’ permanent office. The architects set to work removing the debris, and managed to salvage much of the stone wall and basement structure, including fallen doors and windows. The firm also redesigned the Borglum addition, restored the skylights, and opened for business in early 1985.

When the architects left the building after several years, the pump house once more fell out of use, while city and park leaders discussed what next to do with the historic site. Some felt that its position adjacent to the historic Brackenridge Municipal Golf Course and clubhouse prompted the establishment of a golf museum or a meetinghouse for players. Still others, among them Borglum’s granddaughter, Ribin Borglum Carter, desired a venue where artists might once again come to practice their skills and display their work. However, she did concede that “turning the building into a golf museum is preferable to the abandonment the studio suffered for years.” In late 2007, both sides got some satisfaction when the San Antonio City Council and the Municipal Golf Association announced that they would include the studio in a multi-million dollar overhaul of the park and its golf course. The renovation plan for Pump House No. 2 meant that once again the Borglum studio would undergo restoration in order to house a conference center and a museum to commemorate the master sculptor, his Brackenridge studio years, and his contributions to American art and San Antonio.

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