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Sunken Gardens to return to its roots with restoration

Mark Parker



Royal palm trees at Sunken Gardens. Photo by Beth Reynolds.

The latest news on Sunken Gardens was all sunshine and roses as the enduring 4th Street botanical gardens and tourist attraction announced new grants and donations, a historic renovation, and a path to not needing subsidies for the first time.

Sunken Gardens had three items on the agenda at Thursday’s St. Petersburg City Council meeting – all of which were good news. Lauren Kleinfeld, Manager for the city-owned attraction, told the council the city was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Florida Division of Historical Resources to develop the Sunken Gardens History Center’s interpretive displays. She said the project ranked fifth out of 62 applicants, and they are “quite proud of that.”

This grant will be used for the design and creation of educationally interpretive signs, and the production of educational videos featuring oral histories from the Sunken Gardens archives. These exhibits will then be featured in the soon-to-be renovated original entrance building from 1940.

This 1950s-era postcard shows the original Sunken Gardens entrance.

Kleinfeld also announced a resolution to recognize a donation of $120,000 from the Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation. This money will go to the entry building renovation and history center project as well. Chris Ballestra, Managing Director of Development for the city, said this long-awaited endeavor would not be possible without the foundation’s generous donation.

“It’s a very exciting project, and we’ve been working on it for many, many years,” said Ballestra.

City council was asked to approve a job order of $468,528.69 for the 1940 entrance building renovation, $294,750 of which can be appropriated from previous Sunken Garden capital improvement projects completed under budget. The once iconic entrance located off 18th Avenue was originally a one-bedroom log cabin, built in 1930 for George Turner’s papaya farm. In 1940, the Turners remade it into a ticket office and gateway to their new Sunken Gardens. 

In the 1950s, a mid-century modern building was constructed facing 4th Street and became the new entrance. The original became a souvenir shop and a place for refreshments, and a wall was later built down 18th Avenue, blocking the vintage entrance from view. When the city bought the park in 1999, the original entry building became a place to house birds and other park animals. Today it is inaccessible to the public and a shell of its former glory, although with the announcement of this project  that will soon change.

“It does require significant work due to its age and condition,” said a representative with the Department of Engineering and Capital Improvements. “A lot of love and care needs to go into this building.”

Artist rendering of the new “entrance.”

The interior will be opened to allow for the history center and its new exhibits. A small courtyard will be added around the building featuring seating and vending and “just providing another area of respite.” A portion of the wall will be taken out and replaced with an appealing gate and lush landscaping, allowing the old entrance to once again be open to public view from 18th Avenue. An arbor for growing orchids will also be erected along a remaining portion of the wall.


Robin Reed, President of the Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation, said that the park is “not just a beautiful and well-maintained garden that is loved by so many people. It’s also a unique example of a historic roadside attraction.” Few roadside attractions remain, and before long, Reed said, Sunken Gardens will be one of the last standing. “That makes it all the more important that we protect and enhance it.”

Ballestra discussed what an asset Sunken Gardens is to the community. He said in the 20-plus years the city has owned the attraction, there have been significant advances that positively affect the bottom line. As an outdoor garden, attendance at the park has been steady through the pandemic due to it offering a safe alternative to indoor activities.

Ballestra said in addition to the public’s renewed desire to visit the attraction, it has also become a go-to spot in the city to host weddings. He noted that weddings are currently booked all the way through 2023. This combination has led to more good news that was music to the ears of the city council.

“We are very excited that we think we are at the point where we could be approaching a zero-subsidy in this fiscal year,” said Ballestra. “Which we’ve never done before.”

Councilmember Robert Blackmon called the news about the zero-subsidy “incredible” and said that “it could serve as a model for other city facilities moving forward, I hope.”

Blackmon added he is excited for the renovations to the park he has frequented since his childhood and said, “it really is something that makes our city special.”

“It’s four acres in the heart of a bustling 4th Street where you feel like you’re in another world,” said Ballestra. “It is a local treasure.”

The residents of St. Petersburg have voiced how much the park means to them through their votes and tax dollars. Rather than risk being sold to a private developer and possibly lost forever, residents voted for an increase in taxes in 1999 that allowed the city to purchase, maintain and restore Sunken Gardens.

City council unanimously voted to approve all three motions relating to the attraction.








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  1. Avatar

    Tracey Schofield

    August 22, 2021at8:00 pm

    Do you know if Sunken Gardens has any plans for any childrens educational upgrades. I have a children’s charity and may be willing to contribute a significant donation in support of a project with a focus on children.

    Thank you,
    Tracey Schofield
    Police and kids foundation

  2. Avatar

    Dave Outlaw

    August 23, 2021at11:21 am

    I remember taking my kids here back in 1985 . It was a pleasant surprise to see the natural beauty we had in our own backyard . No other franchise. Attractions come close to this .

  3. Avatar

    Nathan Heinze

    August 23, 2021at6:11 pm

    SO great to hear!

  4. Avatar

    Laura McGrath, SGFF Secretary

    August 26, 2021at11:52 am

    As you have already learned through other channels, Mr. Schofield, a Children’s Educational Garden is in the works at Sunken Gardens and we hope it will come to fruition within the next couple of years. We at the Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation (a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that is separate from the City-owned Sunken Gardens) are very excited about this project and look forward to fundraising for it. Of course we are very grateful for your interest!

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