By Rae Nadler-OlenickNestled in the shadow of Austin’s Mount Bonnell—so snugly tucked away behind stone walls that visitors to the Austin Museum of Art-Laguna Gloria next door often overlook it—lies Mayfield Park and Preserve, a 23-acre oasis of urban tranquility steeped in natural beauty and historic lore. Showy peacocks, serene lily ponds, stately trees, and bright, lovingly landscaped flower beds, set against a restored 19th-Century country cottage, all charm the eye of the beholder in this enchanted spot. Beyond the enclosed two acres of home and garden space, three miles of nature trails wend their leisurely way through oak and juniper woodlands down to Barrow Brook Cove, an inlet of Lake Austin.
The cottage—built sometime between 1860 and 1880 on plantation land belonging to Judge Robert J. Townes—passed through many hands until 1909, when Allison Mayfield (1860-1923), former Texas Secretary of State and then-Chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, purchased it and the proximate acreage for a weekend home. He left it, upon his death, to his daughter Mary Mayfield Gutsch. Over the next half-century, Mary and her husband, Milton, a University of Texas history professor, transformed their homestead into a showpiece graced with pools and peafowl and the Texas plant life Mary nurtured with the help of a trusted gardener. Mary deeded the homestead to the City of Austin in her 1971 will. But with no funds earmarked for its upkeep, the site rapidly slid into disrepair.
In 1986, two local women, Karen Cannatti and Mary Kaiser, working through the umbrella group Friends of the Parks, spearheaded a push to return the estate to its former glory.
Within two years they had attracted sufficient funding to commission a site report from an Austin historic preservation firm, Gregory Free & Associates. The University of Texas at Austin Winedale Institute in Historic Preservation also pitched in, pro bono, with a physical and historical documentation of the park’s buildings and garden features.
Restoration commenced in 1989, beginning with much-needed repairs to the cottage’s foundation.
Today, Allison Mayfield’s erstwhile country retreat flourishes once more under the auspices of the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, which votes a yearly allocation for its general upkeep. Two salaried, part-time groundskeepers care for the lawns and the ponds, while a loyal cadre of dedicated volunteers tends to Mary’s original garden plots.
The park reflects the “cottage garden” style popular in early-20th-Century England, with patches of trees, shrubs, and flowers scattered informally about the grounds. On a pleasant spring day, visitors may be greeted by raucous peacock cries and discover a large royal-blue male in peak plumage roosting in a venerable live oak or showing off his magnificent colors on the cottage’s sun porch. The freely roaming flock (there are currently 13 members) are descendants of a pair of birds the Gutsches received as a Christmas gift in 1935.
Deeper into the property, pomegranate, crepe myrtle, oleander, and trumpet vine are but a few of the plants that decorate the north lawn with their vivid blooms in season. Majestic Sabal mexicana (also known as Sabal texana) palms—one of the largest stands north of the Rio Grande Valley—blend with such locally familiar trees as redbud, pecan, peach, juniper, and massive live oaks dating to Allison Mayfield’s day, to lend an exotic, semitropical ambiance.
On the east side of the looping driveway, the Gutsch garage, which had previously been demolished, has been rebuilt in place from photographs, and is used to store maintenance equipment. Next to it stands a circular rubble-stone dovecote in which Professor Gutsch once raised fancy white Moorhead pigeons.
Several pools adorn the spacious lawns. The visual centerpiece is a quatrefoil: a flower-petal arrangement comprising four teardrop-shaped pools grouped around a cir-cular one from which springs a sunburst of aquatic yellow iris. A sixth, hourglass-shaped pool represents the flower’s stem. Shimmering koi and goldfish dart beneath the ponds’ shallow waters. They share their space with common minnows, tadpoles, and frogs, whose sonorous voices and athletic leaps captivate young and old alike. Pink and white water-lily blossoms float languidly among lily pads on the placid surfaces.
Some 30 raised “island” flower beds occupy the yard’s southwestern corner. Sequenced to provide year-round color, they continue Mary’s eclectic tradition, balancing heirloom plants of Texas and Mexico with introduced species chosen for their beauty. Zinnias, marigolds, and snapdragons grow side by side with Texas wildflowers. Lilies and irises—Mary’s personal favorites—abound. The largest bed, sponsored by the Austin Herb Society, showcases a rich array of culinary and medicinal herbs.
Two decorative arches break the continuity of Milton Gutsch’s laboriously constructed native-limestone walls. The first arch, draped with yellow climbing Lady Banksia roses, opens onto an unroofed gazebo, overlooking Barrow Brook, where the Gutsches once entertained friends. The spot is now popular for weddings, and casual visitors may spy a wedding party lending extra charm to the grounds, which remain open to the public even when reserved for special events.
The second arch leads to the Bell Trail, one of several paths that crisscross the 21 wooded acres sloping down to Lake Austin’s shore. The trails are relatively easy to manage (wear comfortable shoes) and make for an enjoyable family outing. More than a dozen bird species, including waterfowl, make their home here. Nature-lovers can also hope to spot a variety of mammals, from rock squirrels to deer, as well as reptiles, amphibians, and fish.
Groundskeeper Cynthia Coffman, who volunteered here for four years before being hired nine years ago, sums up Mayfield Park’s appeal: “If you want a place that is serene, beautiful, magical, interesting …then this is the place you want to be.”
Mayfield Park and Preserve is at 3505 W. 35th St. in Austin. Entrance to the parking lot, through iron gates, is well marked. The cottage and its surrounding gardens are wheelchair accessible.
Both park and preserve grounds open daily free of charge. Park hours are 5 a.m.-10 p.m. Preserve hours are dawn to dusk. The cottage is presently open to the public only during special events; reservation costs vary. For more information, call 512/974-6797.
Free guided tours of the gardens are at 9:30 a.m. on the second and fourth Sat. of the month, or by appt. For details, call 512/467-1848. Picnic tables are available on the grounds. Wading in the ponds is prohibited.
Additional support for ongoing activities comes from diverse sources, including the Heritage Society of Austin, the Historic Landmark Commission, the Austin Community Foundation, the Junior League, and private donors.
For more on the adjacent Austin Museum of Art–Laguna Gloria, see For the Road, page 6 of the print issue.