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From rockpile to restful refuge

 
From rockpile to restful refuge
HARRY & LINDA KAYE PEREZ Prison laborers built the pagoda in the Japanese Tea Garden in 1918. It was re-roofed in 2005 during a major restoration effort. The bridge has been the site of many a first kiss.

There is a beautiful but not extremely well known refuge from the summer heat and bustle of San Antonio, tucked away off I-35 near the San Antonio Zoo.

It all started back in 1840, when German masons quarried limestone north of San Antonio to supply construction projects in the growing city, including the Menger Hotel, which was completed in 1859. In 1880, the Alamo Cement Co. began producing cement near the quarry site. The chimney of the original kiln used in this process for more than 26 years still stands today.

The land was donated to the city in 1899 by George Brackenridge, the president of the San Antonio Water Works Co. In 1917, the city parks commissioner envisioned an oriental-style garden in the then-deserted quarry. The following year, using prison labor, the quarry was transformed; walkways, arched bridges, and a Japanese pagoda were built.

In 1919, the city of San Antonio invited a local Japanese-American artist, Kimi Eizo Jingu and his family, which eventually totaled eight children, to live in the park and maintain the gardens. And, in 1925, the Jingu family opened the Bamboo Room to serve lunch and tea to visitors.

Originally named the Japanese Tea Garden, the name was changed to the Chinese Tea Garden during World War II because of anti-Japanese sentiment, but most people knew this as the Sunken Gardens. We can remember visiting the gardens many times as teenagers; there was nowhere else like it in San Antonio. You could hike the trails that meandered through the gardens, over the bridges, and up and down the sides of the transformed quarry. Koi swam in the lily ponds; flowers were everywhere. A beautiful waterfall cascaded down from the highest point of the rock wall. One particular arched bridge over one of the larger lily ponds was the spot of many a “first kiss.” In 1984, the city re-dedicated the garden and restored its original name -- the Japanese Tea Garden.

We are not sure when the decline started, but due to lack of funding, the gardens were neglected and fell into terrible disrepair. The beautiful flowers vanished, along with the wildlife; graffiti and vandalism prevailed, and even the waterfall stopped flowing.

In 2005, the city of San Antonio used bond money to reroof the pagoda pavilion and the Jingu House; in 2007, $1.6 million was allocated for the restoration of the lush year-around gardens, the lily ponds, and the 60-foot waterfall. It was reopened to the public on March 8, 2008. In 2009, the San Antonio Parks Foundation and the City of San Antonio invested $1 million in the restoration of the historic Jingu House.

Work was completed in October 2011 and the new Tea House was open. Managed by Fresh Horizons Creative Catering, a variety of Asian-inspired light lunches are offered, including stir-fry, artisan sandwiches, wraps and salads, and a wonderful array of specialty hot and cold teas. The tasteful décor can only be described as simply elegant; it is a quiet, restful retreat, especially on a hot San Antonio day.

The entrance, located in Brackenridge Park just across from the baseball diamonds, was created by Mexican-born artist Dionicio Rodriguez in 1942, replicating a Japanese Torii gate in his unique style of concrete construction that imitated wood. This was during the period when the site was known as the Chinese Tea Garden.

Visiting the garden is a pleasure. There is free parking at the entrance and there is no charge to enjoy this treasure. Be sure to take your camera; there are great photo-ops at every turn. Explore the well-defined walkways, and, when you are tired, you are sure to find a unique bench built into the landscape to rest upon.

The Japanese Tea Garden has been described as a diamond created from stone. It is a delight for those who venture into this oasis.

Harry and Linda Kaye Perez are freelance writers from just down the road from Floresville. Together they share a passion for traveling and writing, and discovering the very best in all corners of the world. Email them at Harry-Linda411@att.net.

A little more

Located at 3853 N. St. Mary’s St., the Japanese Tea Garden is open every day from dawn to dusk, and is wheelchair accessible. Admission is free. Pets on a leash are welcome.

The garden has been designated as

•A Texas Civil Engineering Landmark

•A Registered Texas Historic Landmark, and

•Is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Jingu House Café, serving tea and light meals, is located in the garden. Visit www.jinguhousesa.com or call 210-735-4648.

 
 
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