St. Petersburg’s oldest tourist attraction may get a facelift this year – restoring it to its mid-century grandeur.
Sunken Gardens, which has been at 1825 4th Street No. since the 1930s, was the topic of Tuesday’s meeting of the Community Planning and Preservation Commission, which approved a “certificate of appropriateness” for the proposed rehabilitation of historic buildings, structures and pathways at the city-owned site, which is on the St. Petersburg Register of Historic Places.
Chief among the proposed changes is the restoration of Sunken Gardens’ vintage ’40s entrance, which hasn’t been used in years and has fallen into disrepair. “Reintroducing it into visitor circulation through the site will serve as a tangible reminder of Sunken Gardens’ origin as a pre-World War II roadside attraction,” city preservationists wrote in the proposal.
The restored entrance building will serve as a history museum and visitors’ center, and will not replace the current attraction entrance.
“It’s really important to share the story of Sunken Gardens’ history,” gardens director Lauren Kleinfeld said Wednesday. “We think (restoring the entrance) would really enhance our visitors’ experience – help preserve the history and be able to share it for years to come. It’s important to save it.”
The city purchased the 4.5 acre botanical garden in 1999 from the heirs of Jacksonville plumber and amateur horticulturist George Turner, who bought it in 1911. Turner found the site’s loamy ground – “sunken” because of a centrally-located sinkhole he subsequently drained – ideal for growing tropical fruit trees and plants.
By 1935, Turner had fenced off the property and was charging a 15-cent admission.
As the decades passed, the Turner family added plant and tree species from all over the world, laid the trails with paving stones and constructed stone and concrete walls and partitions to house animals and birds.
With the exception of a large alligator snapping turtle, parrots and other exotic birds, and a small flock of flamingos added in recent years, Sunken Gardens’ days as a place to see captive wild creatures ended when the city took over the attraction, although the enclosures remain.
“We don’t really want to take anything out,” explained Kleinfeld. “A lot of things had been removed before the current staff was assigned there. We’re definitely not taking anything down – we’re going to preserve.” There are no plans to introduce new animals.
The next step, she said, is finding the money to proceed with the restoration.
Kleinfeld said attendance has been growing steadily in recent years, and that projections foe 2020, pre-pandemic, were 200,000 visitors.
The final turnstile tally was 112,000 visitors for the year.