The City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department kicked off a virtual community engagement process for the rehabilitation of longtime city-owned East Austin event venue Fiesta Gardens earlier this week, a project overseen by preservation-minded local architects Clayton Korte to bring a variety of improvements to the 54-year-old facility that’s often rented for weddings, quinceañeras, and family reunions.
But these events aren’t the most visible elements of the fenced-off complex, which also houses offices for PARD employees and a city maintenance equipment depot that gives the whole area the feel of a perpetual construction site. From the street, you could pretty easily overlook that the buildings inside were actually successfully listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2019, featuring midcentury-era Pueblo Revival architecture constructed to evoke the feel of a colonial-era Mexican city.
Fiesta Gardens first opened in 1966, a public-private partnership between between developers and the city to convert a former East Austin gravel plant on the shores of the lake to a sort of glorified tourist trap that included botanical gardens, a faux-“Mercado de México” with shopping stalls surrounding an interior courtyard, a dining hall, and the crown jewel of the site — the lagoon, fashioned by filling in the site’s gravel pit from the adjacent lake to create a small waterfront with seating used for water-skiing stunt shows and other aquatic events.
Located on the periphery of a working-class Mexican-American residential enclave, Fiesta Gardens catered to Anglo Americans seeking an “ethnic” mid-century entertainment experience. The architecture of Fiesta Gardens, however, capitalized on broad stereotypes that reveal a lack of understanding (if not disregard) of the distinctions between the architecture of Mexico and that of the American southwest. This is especially apparent in the Concession and Market buildings, each of which feature the low profiles, (false) exterior vigas, and decorative carved wood column capitals common in the regional Pueblo and Pueblo Revival architecture of New Mexico. The designers borrowed freely from various regions and periods, resulting in an architectural hybrid that is neither western American nor Mexican in design.
The Chaparral, Fiesta Gardens’ flower-festooned excursion motorboat, shuttled visitors to and from nearby lakeside hotels downtown, and provided water-based tours of the lagoon. This mode of transporting visitors to site served to bring customers in without traveling by car through the Mexican neighborhood in which Fiesta gardens was nestled. In addition to scenic tours (via an open sightseeing trailer known as the “Tijuana Taxi”) and garden trails, entertainment included aquatic shows on the lagoon. A professional water ski stunt team, assembled from a variety of locations (including Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Ohio, and as far reaching as Mexico), performed three times daily.
Despite its Disneyland-esque (or Casa Bonita-esque) charm, the project was almost instantly unprofitable, and the city elected to purchase the site only a year later in 1967 as a home base for civic events like the increasingly popular Austin Aqua Festival.
Attempts by the city to expand the facility through the 1970s stroked controversy among the predominantly Mexican-American residents surrounding the site, prompting the formation of the East Town Lake Citizens Neighborhood Association led by organizer Jesse Segovia, who lived across the street from Fiesta Gardens — that street, formerly Bergman Avenue, was renamed Jesse E. Segovia Street in 2006 in honor of his successful efforts with the neighborhood to secure relocation benefits and other assistance for residents affected by nearby city development.
Keeping that history in mind, the city’s mission for fixing up the site is focused on preserving its architectural features and improving on-site services while maintaining its status as a venue for residents and other local events. The master plan for Fiesta Gardens prepared by Clayton Korte and shown off in the planning documents for the facility’s rehabilitation is split into two phases, the first of which is already funded thanks to Austin’s Hotel Occupancy Tax — turns out you can do a lot with that money!
Phase one will focus on architectural restoration and rehabilitation of the site’s dining hall, outdoor patio, bandstand, and the covered grandstand seating facing the lagoon — bringing all these components up to code, meeting sustainability goals, and improving access to each section with landscape improvements and updated signage.
Streetscape improvements will improve the venue’s connection with the surrounding neighborhood, and presumably we’ll be taking down some of those fences, as you can see in the comparison between the north-facing rendering and the street view of existing conditions below:
An addition to the existing dining hall containing a new catering kitchen, accessible bathrooms, and other back-of-house amenities is the plan’s most major new construction, as shown in the plan below:
The second phase, though not yet funded, hopes to relocate the PARD offices currently located in the facility’s Mercado building and convert this space to an additional event venue — this stage of improvement would also find a way to better integrate the current PARD vehicle storage area currently occupying the site’s west end.
The slide below shows a site plan for the site’s full improvement across these two phases — if all goes well, this is what we’ll get in the end:
You’ll find a more exhaustive list of the numerous improvements planned for Fiesta Gardens at the city’s project site, and once you’ve caught up the Parks and Recreation Department would like it very much if you filled out their questionnaire regarding your experiences with the venue and hopes for its future.
Despite its controversial history and current conditions, there’s a lot of potential for improvement in this area as the surrounding Holly Shores region slowly works to realize its master plan — and if completed, Fiesta Gardens would sit in the center of perhaps the best park complex in East Austin. For what it’s worth, there’s nothing else quite like it in town. Construction for the project’s first phase is currently scheduled for completion in late 2023.