About 20 years ago, Cynthia Mulcahy was walking through Kidd Springs Park in Oak Cliff when she noticed two stone carvings. The conceptual artist had spent her honeymoon in Japan, visiting the temples and gardens of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nagasaki, and she recognized the carvings as Buddhist garden steles, or funeral statuaries. But what were they doing here, and why were there no markers? More than a decade later, an artist grant from the city allowed Mulcahy to delve into the mystery. She spent a year researching the history of Kidd Springs Park in the City Hall archives, combing through the leather-bound, marbled pages of Park Board minutes. What she discovered was remarkable.
Ethel Buell, an Oklahoma oil baron’s wife with a passion for Japanese art, had amassed an astonishing collection of Japanese artifacts during the 1920s and ’30s. At the time, lavish Oriental pleasure gardens were in vogue, lending exotic glamour to the Rockefeller Center and The Ritz-Carlton in New York. Buell’s Muskogee garden—which included a piece from the Japanese Pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, as well as works Buell had bought from G.T. Marsh, the same collector whose antiquities outfitted San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden and The Huntington Library—had earned mentions in the society pages of the New York Times.
After Buell died, her collection was left to her daughter, Betty Buell Bradstreet, who had fond memories of visiting Dallas with her mother. Bradstreet sent a letter to the city in the 1960s to see if it would be interested in the collection. There was one condition: it must remain intact.
A private gift from Oak Cliff residents Dr. and Mrs. Jack Edwards funded the collection’s purchase in 1967, plus the addition of lush landscaping and a Japanese teahouse. But the garden was mislabeled as “Oriental,” erasing the Japanese provenance, and by the ’80s and ’90s severe budget cuts left the garden untended. Objects disappeared. The red-lacquered wooden bridge and torii gate deteriorated. The teahouse burned.
But thanks to recent efforts of Mulcahy and others, the garden is finally getting its due. The ornamental streambed flow and waterfall have been restored, and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension has offered to develop a long-term water-wise plan. The garden will receive landscaping elements—granite boulders, river rocks, and Japanese lanterns—from the Trammell Crow plaza. And in June, the City Council gave its stamp of approval for a $1.025 billion November bond package that includes a minimum
$1.6 million allocation per district for neighborhood and city parks.
According to Willis Winters, director of the Park and Recreation Department, Kidd Springs Park has been deemed a high priority within District 1, and the Japanese garden should receive a significant amount of that funding. Other planned projects include shoreline beautification and dam reconstruction at the park’s lake, plus a separate Dallas Aquatics line item provides several million to build a new community aquatics facility at Kidd Springs Park.
Mulcahy is happy to see the history she uncovered being incorporated into the updates. “For me, it’s much more than just the antiquities,” she says. “This is the history and story of America, how fortunes are built. Essentially everything is still there. It just needs love. Being an artist, I can shed a light on it.”