In 1903, a plumber in St. Petersburg, Florida, did something he would never get away with today. Over a century later people are still enjoying it.
Sunken Gardens offers visitors an escape into a tropical haven of meandering paths, waterfalls, and ponds. Although relatively small, just 4 acres, the twisting trails and dense vegetation give the illusion of a much larger space. Sharp turns open to surprising courtyards and specialized gardens like the Cactus Garden, which includes a tortoise habitat, and the busy butterfly courtyard. The flamingo flock is pretty in pink, while several connected pools support an impressive koi population.
But in 1903 it looked entirely different. That year a local plumber, Mr. George Turner, Sr., purchased a plot of land on what was then the outskirts of St Petersburg, a town of only 1,500 residents. George had a four-acre lake on the property, and being an avid gardener he was more interested in the fertile soil that lay 15 feet down at its bottom. So, putting his plumbing skills to good use, he drained the entire thing, a feat that today would likely be met with horrified outcries from environmentalists and city planners alike. But back then, the newly formed city was busy dredging the bay to expand shipping anyway, and railroads were laid left and right to bring in tourists.
Turner began his below-sea-level garden with the planting of a few citrus trees and a small vegetable garden, adding winding walkways and tropical plants over the years to come. The humid little bubble, sunken below the rest of the neighborhood, created a tiny jungle.
Soon, locals were dropping by to purchase fruits and vegetables from the sunken garden, and by 1920, 25 cents would buy a stroll through the exotic landscape. The 1950s saw the addition of tropical birds. In 1967, the Turner family purchased the adjacent building, formerly the Sanitary Public Market (constructed in 1926) and created the “World’s Largest Gift Shop” and the “King of Kings” wax exhibit honoring the story of Jesus. The wax collection was sold in the mid-1990s to the Museum of Religious Arts in Logan, Iowa.
The gardens remained family-owned and open to the public until the 1970s, when a lack of public interest brought about their closure as a tourist stop. Over the next few decades the family did their best to maintain the property with minimal resources. Several buyers expressed interest in the gardens, including a nudist resort, but none bought the place, and the garden grew wild.
In 1998, St. Petersburg declared the gardens a local historic landmark and saved the gardens. After years of restoration, Sunken Gardens is now reopened to the public, in all its lush and tropical glory.