History of San Antonio

The 100-year-old history of San Antonio's beloved Woodlawn Lake Park

The 100-year-old history of San Antonio's beloved Woodlawn Lake Park

Woodlawn Lake Park at sunset
Woodlawn Lake Park continues to be a cornerstone of San Antonio's West Side. Photo courtesy of City of San Antonio

A man-made lake originally designed to serve one of San Antonio's first subdivisions has become a site for recreation and a source of community spirit for the city’s West Side. Woodlawn Lake Park is celebrating its centennial this year, just as locals are marking the 300th anniversary of the formal founding of San Antonio.

Like the city it calls home, the 62-acre park has a rich history, traces of which can still be seen in the park today. That history began in 1887, when three investors bought 1,000 acres of pasture west of the original San Antonio city limits.

The original investors formed a partnership, West End Town Co., and developed a subdivision called West End Town. Construction involved a dam across Alazan Creek, resulting in an artesian well-supplied lake that first measured 80 acres. A trolley transported residents across the dam to downtown, and, for the first few years, West End Town was a sort of mini-resort area for locals.

But finances turned sour for West End Town’s developers. According to the City of San Antonio's Office of Historic Preservation, West End Town Co. borrowed money which it ended up not being able to repay. Following a foreclosure on the land, the two people who loaned money to the developers — F. H. Baldwin and Julia Anderson — leased the lake and part of the surrounding acreage to a boys’ school during the first decade of the 20th century.

Baldwin died in 1918, leaving his stake in the land to the University of Cincinnati. Anderson gave up her ownership stake to an expanding San Antonio the same year.

Two years later, neighborhood residents formed the West End Improvement Club to try to revitalize the community. They changed the name to Woodlawn Lake and began funding improvements to help the lake area resemble a park, including dozens of trees, a playground, and comfort stations. Visitors also enjoyed movie screenings, rowboats, a hotel, and even a small island built in the lake.

The city purchased five acres to build a playground, which increased the number of visitors. By the end of the 1920s, the city found the money to build a community center and a pool, and the lake officially became city property in 1928.

At that point, the surrounding neighborhood was more than 40 years old — and the age showed. While more people moved into the Woodlawn Lake area, an increase in home construction also uncovered infrastructure in desperate need of repair.

As a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Woodlawn Lake underwent a series of restoration projects funded by the federal government, including the construction of a lighthouse, concession stand, bridges, parking lots, sidewalks, and improvements to landscaping and tennis courts.

Collectively, these and older amenities were meant to lure a variety of people to enjoy Woodlawn Lake in a number of ways, from boating and fishing to family celebrations and musical performances. (Swimming took place — and continues to take place — in the swimming pool and not the lake, as signage makes clear.)

Successive improvement projects included more dredging, as well as the development of a spillway, dam, basketball courts, and a jogging track. The size of the lake was also reduced.

Over the past century, Woodlawn Lake Park has evolved into one of San Antonio’s most popular public parks. The size of the area accommodates a range of activities, and, today, Woodlawn is the site of the city’s official Fourth of July event and the official Fiesta Earth Day, as well as public exercise and health programs, dance classes, and more. It’s also among a handful of city facilities where the swimming pool opens early for public swim season.

After it was designated an official historic district in 2000, neighborhood residents formed the Woodlawn Lake Community Association to help preserve the area's character. Among other things, association members have been instrumental in developing a butterfly garden at the park. The WLCA also engages with neighborhood schools, primarily Jefferson High School; churches; civic organizations; and businesses.   

Alejandro Soto, current president of WLCA, wrote the following in a June 2018 award nomination letter to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department: "[Woodlawn Lake Park] continues to draw residents who are inspired to maintain and enhance the heritage and character of the surrounding neighborhoods," he said. "This part of the city grew and improves because of it. The park continues to be a model of ecology, recreation, and relaxation — an integral and vital part of our community."