Speckled with red surveying flags, in a small section of the site at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, near Houston Street and Milam Park, construction was ordered to halt due to an unexpected discovery. Caution tape demarcated the area in question. With weeds growing sporadically and trenches in the dirt, the area appeared forgotten and unkempt. This, however, was not the case. In fact, the site had become the focus of an archeological study and the subject of more than a century-old debate. Each of the little red flags signified the presence of human remains. As construction began for what was to become a prayer garden designed by the Overland team, the crew found themselves digging up the bones of people buried long ago. Shocked and in unfamiliar territory, the owners decided to call in experts to answer some questions: Who were these people? Why are they here? What is the next step?
Archaeologists from the University of Texas at San Antonio came onto the scene to shed light on the situation. In the process of carefully locating the remains, they concluded that this was a burial site for some of San Antonio’s earliest settlers. It turns out that this same area was once the location of San Fernando Cathedral’s cemetery. Among the findings were bones of Native Americans, Canary Islanders, soldiers, and other Tejanos. The discovery of these remains provoked a dialogue between The Christus Santa Rosa organization and the group of concerned descendants, both of which thought that all the remains had been moved in the 1920s.
Citizens came to the hospital’s administration to express their desire to protect the right of their ancestors to remain at rest. Many cultures, specifically Native Americans, have strong beliefs regarding how to treat unearthed bones. The consensus on this subject, more often than not, is to leave the bones undisturbed, allowing those laid to rest to do so in peace. Many view the removal of bones from a burial site as unhumanitarian. What gives someone the right to dig up the bones of another, remove them, and use them for science or to create space for new buildings? So, both our team and the team at the Children’s Hospital found themselves face to face with a problem that has riddled the country’s courtrooms for decades. This case was a little different, however, and all that anyone needed to do was ask what exactly was planned for this area.
Upset, the descendants demanded that the bones be left as they were. According to a law in Texas, if human remains are found on a construction site, one of two things must happen. The site can become a designated burial site, or the bones are required to be relocated to a designated burial site before anything is built in that area. This said, there was never a plan to construct a building on this location. Rather, the area was being transformed into a prayer garden. When a loved one is in the hospital, friends and family face trying times. The combination of clinical lighting, beeping machinery, and monochromatic surroundings—on top of palpable concerns—can be distracting and stressful. The hospital wanted its guests to have a place to go to escape the sterile environment, a place that would allow them a moment of solitude and a breath of fresh air. The prayer garden was going to be a retreat for the weary. What was previously a parking lot was slated to become a restful garden for reflection.
The leadership of Christus Santa Rosa agreed to listen to the concerns of these descendants. In several meetings over the course of the site study, members of the descendant groups came to voice their stories and opinions. The bones were more than bones to them. They were part of a rich history, one that is often overlooked in these situations. More than anything, the representatives of the descendant groups were upset that they were not a part of the original conversation, considering it was deciding the fate of their passed family members. The Hospital agreed to explore a redesign effort with the goal of keeping the remains in their resting place and providing a usable garden for the hospitals’ many patients and families.
In order to proceed with the construction of the prayer garden, aspects of the design required adjustment, but Overland’s design team and consultants were invested in working out the complex details. Landscape Architect, Catherine O’Connor of CO’Design laid out a beautiful vision for the Prayer Garden in collaboration with the design team at Overland Partners. Some of the details needed to be revised so that the above-ground elements did not disturb the burials below. They started by adding two and a half feet of soil to the original level of the site, distancing everything from the bones. Instead of implementing an underground drainage system, they decided to grade the site in a way that would allow stormwater to surface flow to the perimeter drains. Crushed granite was used for walkways, instead of hard surface paving, to lay as lightly as possible on the surface. The water feature—intended to create a peaceful acoustical environment—was sacrificed due to its subterranean infrastructure requirements so that the remains could rest undisturbed.
The final and perhaps most difficult compromise was the glass memorial panels that were going to be anchored in the ground by two feet of cement below the surface of the garden. These bases, if carried out according to the original plan with compacted fill, would have encroached too far onto the territory of the bones. To avoid impeding on their soil, the design team worked with the structural engineer to make the bases significantly shallower. This means that the memorial panel may move in small increments over time due to expansive soils, but the hospital decided that the dignity of those buried there were more important than the potential movement of the memorials.
Changing so many aspects of the prayer garden was not a simple task. Many people had to put in extra time, working arduously to rectify the sensitive situation. This story, however, speaks volumes of the integrity of all groups involved. So often remains are viewed as an annoyance and a frustrating obstacle to overcome. However, taking the time to fully understand the story of the descendants who have both a history within the bones and a future because of them, makes their preservation seem a little more important. They are not rocks to be tossed aside. Those bones once danced and ran, struggled and triumphed. Just because the bones are the only tangible reminders of lives lived does not mean that their stories are not still alive and well. The empathy and compassion shown by the Christus Santa Rosa Hospital should be a precedent for similar situations that are sure to come. In San Antonio, there are multiple histories that make up the cultural landscape. In the 21st century, there seems to be a greater willingness for all these stories to be heard.
The final step for this process was for Christus Santa Rosa to appeal the decision of the Texas Court for the removal of the remains so that this area can become a designated burial site and the burials can remain at rest in their current location. The court reviewed the plan revisions for the Prayer Garden and ruled that the design was compliant to allow the descendant group’s wishes of leaving their ancestors in place. The Hospital has worked with the descendant groups to honor their ancestors and make this area of the site a beautiful, appropriate place for peaceful solitude and reflection.
The construction of the prayer garden was initially halted in September 2016. This journey of discovery, investigation and understanding was explored thoroughly by all the groups involved. The Christus Santa Rosa organization was gracious in respecting the dignity of the descendants, and the design team was thoughtful in their design of this Prayer Garden that was so recently and for so long a parking lot over these burials. There is no doubt that the final result will honor the remains vastly more than a vehicle parking lot. Not only will there be an elegant landscaping and area for reflection, but there will also be historical markers that tell the story of the people who rest there.
After one full year of deliberation and redesign, the construction of the prayer garden has recommenced. The project should be complete in March 2018. It is fitting that this story of San Antonio history and community will find its conclusion in the 300th anniversary of the European settlement here. These burials date back to some of the original families that lived in this region. We hope that this challenge can be seen as a positive example of how history and progress can find compromise to bring dignity to both.