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  1. Life & Culture

The treasure garden of Pinellas

Conversation with Jennifer Tyson, education coordinator and historian for Sunken Gardens
Jennifer Tyson, 43, the education coordinator at Sunken Gardens, pictured with the rainbow eucalyptus tree at Sunken Gardens on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Jennifer Tyson, 43, the education coordinator at Sunken Gardens, pictured with the rainbow eucalyptus tree at Sunken Gardens on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 5, 2020

Times Correspondent

Sunken Gardens was at one time one of Florida’s most popular tourist attractions, but it faded over the decades, and the family of the founder, George Turner Sr., sold it to the city of St. Petersburg in 1999 for $3.8 million, money raised from a one-time tax approved by the voters. Sunken Gardens re-opened in 2000. It made a profit last year and was off to a great start this year before the pandemic hit, said Lauren Kleinfeld, manager of Sunken Gardens.

It’s had to move most of its horticultural education programs to a virtual format, but the attraction itself is open. (For information, go to Sunken Gardens Website.)

“It’s always happened to be a respite from the bustling city just outside the walls,’' said Jennifer Tyson, education coordinator and historian for the 4 ½ acre park. Tyson, 43, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the life of an enduring roadside attraction.

In 1911, George Turner Sr. bought the property that eventually became Sunken Gardens. Who was he?

George Turner was a gentleman who was raised on a farm just outside of Jacksonville. In 1902, he came to St. Petersburg, as did many trades people. He was a farmer, but he also was a plumber. … And in 1906 he married a woman of some prominence here. Her name was Eula Blanton. …

Something that gets lost a lot of times is Eula herself played a large role in establishing Sunken Gardens. She shared this love of horticulture and growing plants, just as he did. So they wrote back and forth to each other when he was off on various work trips, and a lot of what they talked about was what was growing at the time wherever he might have been.

Sunken Gardens gets its name from the pond that George Turner drained?

Exactly. … What he was draining was the site of Sunken Gardens right now, and it was more of a mucky kind of pond area. People’s horses and cattle were regularly getting stuck in the muck on the outskirts of his property. … Eventually he created a terracotta plumbing system, essentially, to drain the last bit of mucky water that was left in this depression, which was an ancient sinkhole, really, that had filled in over the years. He (drained it) into the bay.

 Pink Flamingos show off their color in Sunken Gardens, St. Petersburg.
Pink Flamingos show off their color in Sunken Gardens, St. Petersburg. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

How did it become a tourist attraction?

It did start out as a personal garden. ... George Turner had throughout the ’20s and earlier been purchasing various portions of land throughout St. Petersburg. And one of the largest portions really was the site of the Gardens. And he leased out the property essentially to the Sanitary Public Market. (It was a cavernous supermarket that had individual vendors, like an in-door farmers’ market.)

Unfortunately, the (people) who developed the Sanitary Market defaulted on their loan. … We think that the land boom (and bust) had something to do with it. A lot of people were losing their shirts and just couldn’t make their payments. So that caused George Turner Sr. to really have to come up with ways to maintain daily life, so they started to develop the gardens even more, and sell fruits and vegetables. That was the main goal. But over the years, they started to see people wanting to see the plantings for their own personal interest. As they saw that, they realized that the money was really in the attraction itself.

He started charging a nickel for admission?

The numbers change depending on who you are talking to. … But what we’ve been reporting is that in one particular newspaper article he said 15 cents was the original charge for coming into the gardens and exploring, and that was in the late ’20s. Then he realized, “I could be charging a little bit more for this,” so then he bumped it up to 25 cents a person. … And it was in the mid-’30s that they really officially opened as Turner’s Sunken Gardens attraction.

When was the heyday of the tourist attraction?

The Gardens themselves a whole, the heyday was absolutely the ’50s and ’60s. … The number of people coming through was very high – it was in that 200,000 a year range. But also because there were cultural events, local teas and beauty pageants – oh my goodness, the beauty pageants. So there was always something going on that people would want to attend, whether they were tourists or a local.

In the 1960s, the Sanitary Public Market building, which had been sold and reacquired by the Turners, became the “World’s Largest Gift Shop.’' How large was it?

(The building) does now house not only Sunken Gardens’ lobby, gift store and administrative offices, as well as event space, but it also houses an entire Carrabba’s restaurant; the Great Explorations children’s museum; and bakery. ... (It’s) all in that original building.

Jennifer Tyson, 43, the education coordinator at Sunken Gardens, pictured in the wedding lawn and koi pond area at Sunken Gardens on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Jennifer Tyson, 43, the education coordinator at Sunken Gardens, pictured in the wedding lawn and koi pond area at Sunken Gardens on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

What was the King of Kings wax exhibit?

There was a local artist who created the heads and the feet and hands of these people from the life of Christ and Christ himself. … and Kathy Turner Lee, the granddaughter, says she remembers as a child, (seeing) people just lining up around the block to get into that part of the attraction. It was extremely popular, and it was where Carrabba’s is now.

Why did they decide to bring in pink flamingos in the 1950s?

I’m not sure of the exact motivation that they had. ... People were coming here on a regular basis specifically to Sunken Gardens. So (the birds were brought in) to keep the attention of the same repeat guests. That’s my guess.

(Kathy Turner Lee) remembers actually going in a vehicle with her family to pick up some of these flamingos down in Miami. And they were driving back, and people were just looking at them strange, because they were literally sitting with a couple of flamingos in the back seat with them, as young children, her and her brother.