One Artist Is Telling the Story of a Forgotten Japanese Garden in Kidd Springs Park

Even if you frequent Kidd Springs Park in North Oak Cliff you may have missed the Japanese sculptures that date back until at least the 18th century. There are people who walk, jog, and ride their bikes past this artwork everyday and never give it any thought, probably mistaking antiquities for cheap garden ornaments. People come to the park to sit on a bench, let their kids make use of the playground, or get high. At first glance, the small lake and geese tough enough to make you move off the sidewalk are the only things that get your attention about Kidd Springs.

Years ago, Cynthia Mulcahy walked away from a successful career as an art dealer to focus on creating social change with public art. “I had a bit of a crisis about what I felt art’s potential was,” Mulcahy says. “I was selling the same ten-thousand dollar paintings to the same ten people.” She started using research and historical preservation to revaluate what being an artist means. For a public art project, Mulcahy uncovered a long lost history after wondering about the statues in Kidds Spring Park.

The park is now missing components that helped identify it as a Japanese garden, so the artwork doesn’t appear to be in the proper context to make people think twice about it. There was once a Japanese tea house, but it burned down. There was once an entrance gate constructed in 1928 with swinging doors typical of a Japanese garden, but after wear and tear it was modified and is now unrecognizable. There was a stunning twelve-foot Torii Gate in the water, but it’s long gone. There was even an Edo Period Buddhist temple bell, but it can’t be accounted for.

After spending a month in Japan studying architecture and sculpture, Mulcahy was very interested in the specifics of this artwork and how it ended up in a public park. There are no plaques offering any sort of history or explanation; one of the sculptures was even leaning up against a tree. She quickly realized that virtually no one who visited the park or even lived nearby knew much, if anything, about its history. But with very extensive research that included contacting people who used to live near the area ages ago, tracking down landscaping contracts and public records, Mulcahy made some surprising discoveries.

At Kidd Spings Park, there is a lantern that was sent to the 1933 World’s Fair by the Japanese government; it’s ten feet tall and weighs two tons. Ethel Buell, an oil heiress from Oklahoma who started collecting Japanese art in the 1920s, purchased it. She also bought Buddha statues from George Turner Marsh, who organized what is now the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate State Park. Buell was buying Japanese art and having experts build Japanese structures decades before museums like the MOMA did the same thing with enormously successful exhibits.

The collection was originally offered to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, who turned it down due to Japanese-American discrimination during World War II. After Buell’s death in 1964, her daughter offered the Japanese sculpture garden to the Dallas Parks Department. This was simply because she wanted the collection to stay together and enjoyed shopping at Neiman Marcus here in Dallas, which has a huge system of parks. The bell in the bell tower was likely worth the family’s estimate for the entire collection, and the Dallas Parks Department paid a fraction of that.

By 1971, the Japanese sculpture garden had been moved to Kidd Springs Park and a significant landscaping project had been completed. People from all over North Texas visited the park and it was also a tourist attraction. The park was so beautiful that wedding ceremonies were typical. There were originally at least three Buddha sculptures, but two remain. “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these is sitting in someone’s yard,” Mulcahy says.

Many components of the original Japanese garden are no longer in the park, but the remaining 18th century sculptures are the most difficult objects to replace, and certainly the most culturally significant. “If you go to Japan, these would be out in front of temples,” Mulcahy says. “This is really unusual to just have this in a public city park.”

Mulcahy’s research seems to have uncovered another example of why a city should have a budget for maintaining public art. Her work as a volunteer also points at a lack of funds to maintain parks. Mulcahy volunteers with Friends of Oak Cliff Parks, a citizen volunteer group that has donated plants and hundreds of thousands of hours to help maintain the four historic Oak Cliff parks: Kiest, Founders, Lake Cliff, and Kidd Springs.

Green spaces are necessities, not amenities. It can be easy to think of a park as nature as an idea or something given to the people. But many parks have organic histories and were created by considerable efforts from communities of people; they are local history. There are all sorts of important local buildings that should be preserved to maintain a sense of history. The Knights of Pythias Temple, for example, is the most historical building in Deep Ellum. Why has it been rotting away for decades and why the hell is it painted white? The hundreds of small public parks in North Texas are necessary as green spaces, but they often preserve kernels of local history. Some of them even have great art. 
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Jeremy Hallock