San Pedro Springs Park (also known as San Pedro Park), the oldest park in Texas and one of the oldest municipal parks in the United States, is located in San Antonio between North Flores Street and San Pedro Avenue and faces the San Antonio College campus. Today the park comprises forty-six acres of land and has a swimming pool, tennis center, and the San Pedro Playhouse, which hosts live theater and houses the organization known as The Public Theater of San Antonio.
The San Pedro Springs were vital to early settlement, and in 1729, when King Philip V of Spain gave a royal grant of six leagues of land to San Antonio de los Llanos, the springs and surrounding area were declared public land for the benefit of all settlers. After the arrival of the Canary Islanders, an acequia was dug from the springs’ main lake to their new settlement. The area remained a popular camping and recreation spot into the nineteenth century.
In 1851 the San Antonio city council took action to establish clearly-defined boundaries for the park which eventually led to the city’s clear title to forty-six acres. On November 6, 1852, the city dedicated the park as a new public square, and in 1854 Frederick Law Olmsted visited San Pedro Springs as one of “several pleasant points for excursions” and later described the park as a “wooded spot of great beauty, but a mile or two from the town, and boasts a restaurant and beer-garden beyond its natural attractions.” The park was the site of several military encampments during the Mexican War, and the U.S. Army temporarily stabled camels there in 1856. In 1861 the area around the springs was used as a Confederate prison camp, but in 1863 the city council prohibited the park’s use for military encampments or livestock storage due to the damage caused on the premises.
John Jacob Duerler, a Swiss landscape designer, was an early resident and caretaker of the park and in 1852 had purchased land adjoining San Pedro Springs from the city and rented the land surrounding the springs. In 1854 Duerler built a house on the parkland and petitioned the city council to allow him to remain. The council agreed on the condition that Duerler assume responsibility for protecting the parkland. In 1864 Duerler petitioned the city council to extend his lease on the parkland for twenty years. According to the terms of the agreement, Duerler was to improve the park through landscaping and development of recreational facilities. Over the next ten years he planted numerous trees and shrubs. He also made ponds for boating, fishing, and swimming. He built bathhouses, a tropical garden, picnic and concession areas, a small zoo, an aviary, a racetrack, and a pavilion for concerts and dances. In 1866 Duerler had obtained a charter to build a street rail line from downtown San Antonio to the park, but the line was never built. Augustus Belknap bought the stock of the dormant San Antonio Street Railway, and in 1878 a mule-drawn car that carried passengers from Alamo Plaza to San Pedro Springs began regular service.
After Duerler’s death in 1874, his son Gustave and son-in-law Isaac Lerich retained the lease on the park. The lease and all improvements was sold to Frederick Kerble in 1882. The city council approved the sale and extended Kerble's lease. The park remained popular, with concessions, paddle boats, concerts, sporting contests, and even hot-air balloons. In 1885 Hungarian naturalist Gustave Jermy opened a museum of natural history on the grounds.
In the 1890s, however, with the digging of other wells, there was less dependence on the San Pedro Springs, and the springs suffered contamination from runoff, sewage, and horses. The park went into a period of decline. After Kerble's lease expired in 1891, the city of San Antonio assumed control of San Pedro Park. In 1891 the city installed electric lights, and in 1892 the racetrack was replaced with a baseball park. The city launched a cleanup and renovation of the park. The lake was cleaned, fixtures were painted, crews constructed a new boat landing and new bandstand, and greenery was planted. The park reopened in August 1899.
The city's first municipally-owned zoo was operated in the park from 1910 to 1915, when it was moved to Brackenridge Park. A municipal swimming pool, fed by the springs, was built in San Pedro Springs Park in 1922, followed by a community playhouse and a branch library in 1929. In 1940 the pool was closed, due to the declining flow of the springs. McFarlin Tennis Center was built in 1954. That same year the swimming pool was rebuilt, with the aid of funding from Howard E. Butt, but it was supplied with city water. In 1966 the old ballpark was converted into a softball center with two playing fields, scoreboards, bleachers, concession stands, and restrooms. Throughout much of the later twentieth century, the San Pedro Springs were mostly dry except during heavy rains. The tennis center was expanded in the 1970s, and the park included asphalt roadways and a parking lot.
In 1979 San Pedro Springs Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During the 1970s and 1980s city leaders and park advocates called for the development of a master plan to rehabilitate the park. A key focus of any master plan was the restoration of the San Pedro Springs lake and the reintroduction of larger green spaces. Voters passed a $54 million bonds initiative for parks in 1994 which included funding a master plan for San Pedro Springs Park. Work from 1997 to 1999 included the removal of the existing swimming pool in order to develop a new lake (made to resemble the historic lake) and swimming pool. Some asphalt paving was taken out and replaced with green space, and educational signage regarding the park’s historical and cultural significance was erected. The restored park opened on May 20, 2000. Since its opening, water conservation efforts and pumping limits on the Edwards Aquifer have resulted in stronger spring flow and for longer periods of time. A nonprofit group, the Friends of San Pedro Springs Park, works to support efforts to preserve the park through funding ongoing renovation measures and educational campaigns.