Japanese Sunken Gardens

It’s a fact that dreams and impressions can imprint on one’s mind and be manifest at a later time. That must be the case with my yard, as someone recently remarked that it reminded him of Brackenridge Park, namely, The Japanese Sunken Gardens. I can’t imagine a better compliment.
Since my early teenage years, I have often visited that amazing San Antonio treasure. Every summer, I take granddaughters and grand-nieces there for photo-ops and to stroll, wander, pick-nick, and learn of its history. One granddaughter even dreams of having her wedding there! When encountering tourists in San Antonio, or when learning of folks planning a visit there, I always recommend The Japanese Sunken Gardens as a must.
Known for a time as The Chinese Tea Garden, The Japanese Tea Garden is affectionately called The Sunken Gardens. It was developed on an abandoned limestone rock quarry which was donated to the city in 1899 by George Washington Brackenridge.
Brackenridge was a philanthropist and the longest-serving Regent for the University of Texas. Also a businessman, Brackenridge organized two banking institutions in San Antonio, later serving as their president. In addition, he served as president of the San Antonio Water Works Company, and he once lived in Alamo Heights, a community which he reportedly named. Today, his mansion, Fernridge, is on the campus of the University of the Incarnate Word. In addition to his donations which made The Japanese Tea Garden possible, his contributions also resulted in the establishment of Mahncke Park, located in midtown San Antonio which connects the San Antonio Botanical Gardens to Brackenridge Park.
The ground of the present Gardens was first broken around 1840 by German masons who used the limestone to supply the local construction market. Many buildings in San Antonio were built with the stone from this quarry, located on the Rock Quarry Road. One such building is the Menger Hotel, established in 1865.
In 1880, the Alamo Cement Company was incorporated and produced cement for 26 years in the kiln, the chimney of which still stands today on the edge of the Gardens. The workforce of the quarry lived in what amounted to a small village. The families living there became well-known to tourists for selling pottery, hand woven baskets, and food.
In 1917, City Parks Commissioner Ray Lambert visualized an oriental-style garden in the pit of the quarry. Engineer W.S. Delery developed the plans, and with funds from private donors, work began in 1918. Prison labor was used to shape the quarry into a complex that included walkways, stone arch bridges, an island, and a Japanese pagoda. The entrance to the garden has a Japanese Torii gate whose unique design imitates wood. The intricate structure was created by Mexican-born artist Dionicio Rodriquez.

The entrance to The Sunken Gardens at Brackenridge Park.

In 1919, the city invited Japanese-American artist Kimi Eizo Jingu to move to and live at the Gardens. Kimi and Miyoshi Jingu maintained the Gardens and lived in the park where they raised eight children. Kimi, a representative of the Shizuoka Tea Association, was recognized nationally as an expert in the tea business. Sadly, in 1941 – three years after Kimi died and following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – the Jingu family was evicted.
As a result of rising anti-Japanese sentiment, the garden was renamed the Chinese Tea Garden – many similar Japanese gardens in other cities were being vandalized – and a Chinese-American family named Ted and Ester We opened a snack bar in the pagoda. It remained open into the early 1960s.
In 1984, under the direction of Mayor Henry Cisneros, the city restored the original name, Japanese Tea Gardens, in a ceremony which was attended by Jingu’s children as well as representatives of the Japanese government.
Unfortunately, for many years, the Gardens fell to neglect and became victim to graffiti and vandalism. Limited funding to restore the Gardens and the ponds, whose leaking problems made it too costly to maintain, threatened to result in the final closing of the site. However, community and parks supporters rallied and lobbied to find a way to keep the park open and restore it to its former glory.
In 2005, the city used bond money to re-roof the pagoda-like Pavilion. In 2007, former Councilwoman Bonnie Conner – who was vice-chairwoman of parks projects for the San Antonio Parks Foundation – and former Mayor Lila Cockrell – Parks Foundation president – began a $1.6 million restoration campaign to restore the ponds and waterfall. As a fan of the Gardens, this writer was thrilled to learn that a close family friend, Bill Garner, and his son, Gabriel Garner, won the contract to complete the restoration under the name of their “pool” and “fountain” company, Interpool, Inc. The rehabilitation included piping, filtration, wall repairs, and pond sealing. The result is a restored garden that includes a lush, year-round floral display, shaded walkways, ponds filled with Koi, bridges, and a 60-foot waterfall.
The Japanese Sunken Gardens were reopened on March 8, 2008, and the Jingu family members returned for a celebration replete with a serenade of Japanese songs by Tafoyalla Middle School Japanese students, origami demonstrations, and a Koi-shaped cake! Then, in 2009, the San Antonio Parks Foundation and the City of San Antonio began a $1 million project to restore the historic Jingu house. This work was completed in 2011, and the building is now open as a restaurant where light lunches are served just as the Jingu family did in the 1930s.
In addition to its being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Sunken Gardens is also designated as a Texas Civil Engineering Landmark as a result of its prominent role in the development of the cement business and redevelopment of the site as a garden.
Schedule a morning for a leisurely visit to the Sunken Gardens. There is no charge to enjoy this tranquil, sensory delight; and, who knows, it may become an inspiration for you, too!
(Sources: National Register Information, National Register of Historic Places, San Antonio Parks Foundation Document, Website of the City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation – Parks Histories, and Roadtrippers.)