This historically important botanical garden has a fascinating feature – it’s below sea level.
Plumber George Turner Sr. developed the site of Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg. He purchased the land in 1903. The site had a lake which he chose to drain and that’s where he began to build a personal garden. The basin of that lake was (and still is) below sea level, though it’s less than a mile from Tampa Bay.
Turner opened a nursery sometime in the 1920s and allowed people to tour his garden. In 1935 he added a fence and started charging admission. Sunken Gardens is believed to be the oldest tourist attraction on the west coast of Florida south of the Tallahassee area.
It became one of Florida’s most popular attractions, especially after other St. Petersburg attractions were developed. The Tampa Bay area became a popular tourist destination, especially with snowbirds – upper-middle class northerners who could afford to annually “winter” in Florida.
During the 1950s – Florida Tourism’s golden era – Sunken Gardens continued to be popular, even adding an indoor attraction – the King of Kings Wax Museum in 1967. One can see the business acumen of the proprietors of Sunken Gardens in adding a Christian-oriented addition and even cladding the outside of the museum’s building in lava rock – a nod to the increasing post-war popularity of Polynesian culture. And that’s not even mentioning the Garden resident birds: flamingos, parrots, macaws, toucans, swans and my personal favorite – the Inca terns.
Located in an historic part of St. Petersburg, the attraction maintained its popularity through the 1960s and 1970s.
The city of St. Petersburg purchased the property in 1999 and has maintained the gardens ever since. The building that currently contains the gardens’ gift shop as well as Great Explorations, a children’s science museum was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.
Today, the gardens continue to appear much like they have looked throughout their life. It gives Sunken Gardens a dual role of sharing an historic perspective on Florida botanical gardens as well as an expression of a modern garden. Because of its unique location – a drained lake – it has a micro climate that enables it to grow plants that would struggle elsewhere in St. Petersburg. It’s a protected environment that approximates a tropical climate only available in the south of Florida.
While most of the birds from earlier years are gone, there was a nice re-introduction of a flock of flamingos in 2016. They add yet another wonderful kinetic aspect to one of Florida’s most wonderful historic tourist attractions.