1. Archive

One family's vision defined Gardens

Re: Slide show highlights past of Sunken Gardens, Sept. 12.

I have to take issue with your article on Sunken Gardens and Nancy Price's somewhat derogatory and relatively inaccurate depiction of the attraction and historical landmark.

I don't know who Ms. Price's sources were, but I don't believe anyone with a true sense of what Sunken Gardens was all about would attribute its success in the 1950s and '60s to "road signs and postcards featuring women in bathing suits." To my knowledge, no women in bathing suits ever appeared on any of the multitude of road signs. More to the point, the success of Sunken Gardens in those days was attributable to the expertise and vision of the Turner family, not on any marketing effort featuring postcards. My father (George T. Turner Jr.), like my grandfather before him, put in a tremendous amount of hard work to develop Sunken Gardens _ not only through their gardening expertise, but with business skills that allowed them to recognize and respond to the changing interests and preferences of tourists and visitors over the span of several generations.

Contrary to the article, there was no actual zoo in Sunken Gardens, although it was home to a variety of small animals (monkeys, wallabies, goats, tortoises, etc.) and a great number of birds (most flying free in aviaries). While the model for keeping and housing animals has changed a great deal over the years, there was nothing substandard about the animals' care or accommodations at Sunken Gardens, especially within the context of the time period. In fact, the gardens had a full-time curator and a staff dedicated to animal care. This dedication was most aptly demonstrated once when the curator employed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to revive a spider monkey that had come in contact with a power line (perhaps that's a story to incorporate into the slide show).

Yes, the gift shops at Sunken Gardens sold their share of plastic alligators, conch shell lamps and other memorabilia, but they catered to the tourists of the day and gave them what they wanted. To simply say "one million items _ every one of them tacky" is to misrepresent the spirit of the times and the attraction itself. The gift shops sold quality merchandise as well, including Florida T-shirts, fresh Florida orange juice, orange marmalade, and a variety of items that typified the Florida tourist business in its heyday.

My grandfather came to St. Petersburg in 1903, envisioned a beautiful exotic garden and eventually a family business where a muck pond existed, and began a legacy. He achieved wealth through years of hard work and lost it overnight in the Depression; he started from scratch again and rebuilt his business to provide for his family; he saw his sons go off to war and then welcomed them back with joy; he turned the business over to them and watched with pride as they developed a local gathering spot into an internationally known attraction. In the '50s and '60s, Sunken Gardens was an exotic refuge, a place of beauty and elegance, and an example of horticultural excellence. Then circumstances and interests changed. My father left the business in 1972, unfortunately taking most of the vision and business acumen with him, and slowly but surely Sunken Gardens, as it existed on its limited 5 acres, found that it could not compete with the Disney Worlds and the Busch Gardens of the modern era.

I have to say that I was extremely happy when the city of St. Petersburg bought Sunken Gardens and took over operations _ it could not have survived otherwise. I truly hope, however, that Sunken Garden's rich and colorful history will also be preserved _ both fondly and accurately _ and that the efforts of those who worked so hard to make it a special place will never be forgotten.

Scott Turner, Lehigh Acres