Location: 3853 N. St. Mary’s Street San Antonio, TX
Size: 33 acres
Cost: $1,587,470 restoration
The San Antonio Japanese Tea Garden, also known as the San Antonio Sunken Gardens, is a registered Texas historical landmark with over 90 years of rich history. Formerly an abandoned limestone quarry, the site was the source of limestone for much of San Antonio and it played a prominent role in the development of the cement business. In recognition of the landscape’s history, the San Antonio Japanese Tea Garden has also been designated as a Texas Civil Engineering Landmark as well.
Located near Brackenridge Park and the San Antonio Zoo, the Japanese Tea Garden is bit tucked away making it a destination that’s less likely to be stumbled upon. Visitors walk up a short hill past the base of the park to the open-air pagoda, from where, the moniker of “sunken gardens” becomes understood; at the top of the pagoda, there is a sweeping view of the grounds below, sprawling koi ponds, a 60-foot waterfall, stone bridges and exotic vegetation all studded with limestone.
The idea for the San Antonio Japanese Tea Garden came from Ray Lambert, who was the City Parks Commissioner at the time when the land was donated to the City in 1915 for a public park by Mrs. Emma Koehler, widow of Pearl Brewery owner Otto Koehler. Using prison labor, Lambert constructed walkways, bridges, an island and the pagoda from quarry materials. Exotic plantings donated by the City nursery and other sources were planted in lush groves between the quarry stones.
A truly unique and beautiful garden, I loved visiting the gardens, particularly on a hot day. With shaded walkways and proximity to water, the San Antonio Japanese Tea Garden is an excellent place to cool off or, to find a secluded nook to read in. Popular with families, I saw many of them seek out their own peaceful portion of the park to enjoy. This garden, however, rubs strongly against my conceptions of a Japanese garden, particularly with the heavy repetitive use of limestone everywhere. Despite Lambert’s intention of creating an authentic Japanese tea garden–he even researched and imported Japanese plants and koi fish is in abundance–the use of jutting white limestone and the exotic, tropical plant palette of palms makes the garden stray heavily away from the look of traditional Japanese gardens. Rather, it’s an interesting intersection of San Antonio history and eastern influences.