By Maureen Hillman
For those of us who grew up in San Antonio in the 1950s through the 1970s, remembering the enchanted “Sunken Gardens” that we were allowed to run wild around while our mothers drank tea in the Pagoda is a fond thought. We kids thought they were the biggest gardens we had ever seen and would beg to return again as soon as we left. Years later they took their own babies in strollers through the gardens for an outing to see all the fish. Now, since the restoration the place has become magical again: a 40-foot waterfall and the sounds of the gardens immediately relaxes, while bringing back those childhood memories.
THE EARLY YEARS
In 1899, the San Antonio Water Works Company, through its president, George W. Brackenridge, donated 199 acres to the City of San Antonio for a public park. This tract comprises the largest portion of the park that today bears Brackenridge’s name and officially opened to the public in 1901. There was still an operating rock quarry west of the park leased by the City to stone cutters since the mid-1800s. In 1880, Alamo Portland and Roman Cement Company (later called Alamo Cement Company) began to use the quarry, and when the company needed rail lines to expand production, it purchased a new site and closed its Brackenridge Park operation in 1908. Between the quarry and San Antonio River to the east was an 11-acre tract of land owned by Emma Koehler, widow of Pearl Brewery owner, Otto Koehler, and she donated it to the city in 1915 for a public park.
Its location adjacent to the abandoned quarry posed a challenge for City Parks Commissioner, Ray Lambert, who ultimately created a lily pond, which eventually became the Japanese Tea Garden. With plans from his park engineer, and little money, Lambert was able to construct the Garden. Between 1917 and 1918, he shaped the quarry into a complex that included walkways, stone arch bridges, an island, and a Japanese pagoda. The garden was termed the lily pond, and local residents donated bulbs to beautify the area. Exotic plants were provided by the city nursery, and the City Public Service company donated the lighting system. The pagoda’s roof was palm leaves from trees in the city parks and when completed, Lambert had spent only $7,000. In 1919 it was reported that “the city of San Antonio has recently completed a municipal lily pond and a Japanese garden which we believe are unique.” In 1926, at the city’s invitation, Kimi Enzo Jingu, a local Japanese-American artist, moved to the garden and opened the Bamboo Room, where light lunches and tea were served.
After Jingu’s death in the late 1930s, his family continued to operate the Tea Garden until 1942, when they were asked to leave because of anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II. The Tea Garden was eventually renamed The Chinese Tea Garden, yet in 1984 the area was rededicated as the Japanese Tea Garden in a ceremony attended by the Jingu’s children and representatives of the Japanese government. The site is designated as a Texas Civil Engineering Landmark, a Registered Texas Historic Landmark, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
By 2009, the Tea Garden was in a state of disrepair, with the Jingu House operating as a park concession stand and then as storage, so a unique public-private partnership was launched. Through a series of bonds, funds were raised for needed restoration. The San Antonio Parks Foundation, in combination with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, are responsible for the restoration of the gardens and the Jingu House. By the time of it’s recently completed renovation, more than $6 million was spent on the project and according to most, every dollar well worth it for this “gem” located in the heart of San Antonio.
Fresh Horizons Creative Catering was selected as the exclusive provider of services for the facility in 2011 after the more than two-year restoration process. Guests can experience a relaxing lunch on the outdoor patio or intimate treetop dining room featuring Private Label teas, specialty bento box, sushi, sandwiches, salads and signature teahouse desserts. Complete your next visit with a stroll through the Japanese Tea Garden’s unique Koi ponds, waterfall, stone bridges and walkways. The winter hours are 11am to 4pm from Nov. 1 – February 28 and the spring hours are March 1st through October 31st, daily 10am to 5pm. For more information, visit Jinguhousesa.com.