The History of the Japanese Tea Garden
The Japanese Tea Garden has a glorious history of over 90 years, from the time it was an operating rock quarry to today, as one of the most loved, educational and cultural resources in San Antonio.
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. After some improvements were made, Brackenridge Park officially opened to the public in 1901. In 1880 Alamo Portland and Roman Cement Company (later called Alamo Cement Company) began operating a quarry on City-owned property west of the park. In 1908 the company purchased a new site to expand production and closed the Brackenridge Park operation. Between the quarry and San Antonio River to the east was an 11-acre tract of land owned by Mrs. Emma Koehler, widow of Pearl Brewery owner Otto Koehler. Mrs. Koehler donated this land to the City in 1915 for a public park but its location immediately adjacent to the abandoned quarry posed a challenge for City Parks Commissioner, Ray Lambert.
Lambert ultimately came up with the idea of a lily pond that eventually became the Japanese Tea Garden. From July 1917 to May 1918, Lambert shaped the quarry into a complex that included walkways, stone arch bridges, an island and a Japanese pagoda. Local residents donated bulbs to beautify the area, the City nursery provided exotic plants and City Public Service donated the lighting system. The pagoda was roofed with palm leaves from trees in City parks. When completed, Lambert had spent only $7,000. In 1919, The American City magazine reported that "the city of San Antonio has recently completed a municipal lily pond and a Japanese garden which we believe is unique."
Lambert continued to improve the garden, and in 1920, at the base of the old cement kilns, a small village of houses was constructed. The village was designed to be a tourist attraction for the manufacturing and sale of Mexican arts and crafts and an outdoor restaurant. It is not known how long the village operated.
In 1926, at the City's invitation, Kimi Eizo Jingu, a local Japanese-American tea importer, moved to the garden and opened the Bamboo Room, where light lunches and tea were served. After Mr. Jingu's death in the late 1930s, his family continued to operate the tea garden until '1942, when they were evicted due to anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II. A Chinese-American family operated the facility until the early 1960s, and it was known as the Chinese Sunken Garden. At the entrance to the gardens, artist Dionicio Rodriguez replicated a Japanese torii gate in his unique style of concrete construction that imitated wood. 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.
Unfortunately the ravages of time and insufficient funds have taken a toll on this beloved facility. In 2004, the City of San Antonio, Department of Parks and Recreation issued a Request for Proposals for the repair and restoration, and an ongoing management plan for the operation of the Sunken Garden Theater, the Japanese Tea Garden and the adjacent Mexican Village. A suggestion for private management was considered but not pursued.At that point, the San Antonio Parks Foundation and its affiliate membership organization, Friends of the Parks, offered to develop a Master Plan, first for the Japanese Tea Garden, and then for the Sunken Garden Theater, and attempt to raise the necessary funds to complete the restoration. The offer was accepted, and a Memorandum of Understanding was signed granting authorization to proceed.
The Master Plan process was initiated with Bender Wells Clark of San Antonio as lead consultant assisted by SWA of Houston. In 2006, SWA moved into the lead role of completing the Master Plan, which was finished in fall of 2007.
The restoration of the Japanese Tea Garden is being accomplished as a public-private partnership between the Parks and Recreation Department of the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Parks Foundation and it affiliated organization Friends of the Parks. The estimated cost of the completed project is $6,000,000. The San Antonio Parks Foundation initiated a capital campaign to raise the required matching funds from the private sector, and foundations, corporations and individuals responded with generous grants, indicative of the broad community support for the restoration project.
Phase one in the restoration process was completed in 2007 as a City of San Antonio project and included the restoration of the pavilion and the stabilization of the Jingu House.
The second phase of the Japanese Tea Garden renovation encompassed the repair and restoration of the ponds and the waterfall, and the installation of a recirculation system to provide a safe habitat for the Koi and aquatic plants. Thanks to the generous donation of resources and time from Pape-Dawson Engineering, the waterfall and ponds were restored in spring of 2008. The restored gardens feature a lush year-round garden and floral display with shaded walkways, stone bridges, a 60-foot waterfall, and Koi . The San Antonio Parks Foundation, Friends of the Parks, and the City of San Antonio celebrated on Saturday, March 8 with a public re-opening attended by the surviving Lambert and Jingu family members. The newly renovated Japanese Tea Garden has been open to the public and welcomed visitors from San Antonio, Texs, and many other states and countries.
The Parks Foundation then began fundraising for the next phase of the restoration process: the restoration and adaptive reuse of the Jingu House. This two story structure was the home of the Japanese Tea Importer and his family. Construction on the Jingu House began in the fall of 2009, and was completed in October of 2011. The Parks Foundation and Friends of the Parks celebrated with a grand opening preview party, Sushi & Sake, on October 14th, and all were invited to celebrate with the City of San Antonio at the public grand opening on October 22nd, also attended by surviving Lambert and Jingu family members.
The Japanese Tea Garden and the Jingu House are now open for reservations, and serve as the perfect backdrop for your next special event. The Jingu House will soon be open for business as the Jingu House Cafe, a restaurant open to the Garden's visitors and managed by Fresh Horizons Creative Catering. Stay tuned for an opening day announcement!
The Japanese Tea Garden Committee, under the leadership of Bonnie Conner, is continuing their valued role in serving as an oversight and planning group.
San Antonio Parks Foundation role
with the Japanese Tea Garden
- Developed and paid for the Master Plan - $100,000+
- Raised $800,000+ towards the $1.6 million restoration of ponds and waterfall, completed in March 2008;
- Raised $1 million for restoration of the historic Jingu House – home of the Japanese family who lived in the Gardens. Jingu House reopened in October 2011.