logo spelling Sunken Gardens with flamingo illustration in between the two words
logo spelling Sunken Gardens with flamingo illustration in between the two words

History

A Tropical Paradise Over 100 Years in the Making

To say Sunken Gardens came from humble beginnings would be an understatement. What started as a sinkhole where wild hogs roamed is now a world-renowned attraction brimming with tropical palms, orchids, flamingos, parrots, and waterfalls. Only in Florida could a plumber and his family lose almost everything but one last piece of swampland and turn it into a nature-filled paradise.

HISTORY IN DATES

Timeline

1911

George Turner Sr., a plumber, avid gardener, and real-estate prospector, purchased the 4.1 acres that would later become a world-famous botanical attraction.
George and Eula Turner on their porch in the early 1900s
old sepia image of a wood cabin surrounded by palm trees with a man smiling out the window

1926

The promise of sunny prosperity had grown empty as Florida’s land bust hit hard. Tough economic times followed two hurricanes and record freezes, causing people to lose interest in buying land so susceptible to natural disasters. Losing his land and savings when banks closed convinced Mr. Turner to pursue his hobby in a more serious way on the mucky land he and his wife Eula purchased for $600. The building and entrance to Sunken Gardens were originally built at this time and have since been restored to their former beauty.

Early 1930's

Using an elaborate maze of clay tiles, Mr. Turner drained the sinkhole known as Curlew Pond, leaving a rich muck soil that was ideal for his favorite hobby – gardening. Neighbors so enjoyed strolling through Mr. Turner's sunken garden, that by the early 1930's he was charging fifteen cents for tours. George's wife, Mrs. Eula Turner shared her husband's love of plants and played a large role in establishing the gardens as a landmark. Their children and grandchildren continued the family vision and created this unique tropical garden with its flowing ponds and lush greenery.
black and white image of the Sunken Gardens gift shop from 1926

1940-50's

In 1940, the Turners erected their first official entrance and gift shop, which now houses our History Center. Sunken Gardens became a social center for weddings, teas, beauty contests, garden clubs, and fashion shows. The Turner sons stepped up to run the Gardens after serving in WWII, bringing in the first flock of flamingos in 1955.

1960-70's

In 1965, a large walk-through aviary was added to allow for guests to get up close and personal with myriad tropical and native birds. It no longer stands, but exotic rehomed birds remain on view for guests to engage with. The animal collection expanded to include monkeys, penguins, pygmy goats, and many more, housed in faux stone enclosures the Turner grandsons built from scratch with a proprietary mix of concrete and laundry detergent.

In 1966, our main entrance, established in 1926, began its transformation from the Coca Cola Bottling Plant into the World’s Largest Gift Store and King of Kings wax exhibit, complete with a cave entrance.

1972 saw the highest attendance records yet, just as Disney World opened in Orlando, However, new highways drove traffic away from roadside attractions. In 1979, the Turner grandsons took over management of the Gardens.
washed out photo from the 60s of two women standing in front of the Sunken Gardens cave entrance, admiring the flowers out front
article from 1998 about how the citizens can save historic sunken gardens

1980-90's

As tourists flocked to large theme parks, the Turner grandsons put the Gardens up for sale in 1989. For 10 years, talk of potential deals spread throughout the area which had already seen other “old Florida” attractions like close their doors for good.

Preserving the Gardens was a community effort starting in the 1990s, culminating in its designation as a protected Local Historic Landmark in 1998. In 1999, the historic main entrance was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Local citizens stepped up and voted for a one-time tax increase, saving the Gardens for future generations.

With the original vision in mind, the City works to preserve this historic botanical garden and use it to provide cultural and educational opportunities to the community.

2022

The Sunken Gardens History Center opened. Our History Center has taken thousands of guests back in time to experience the many exciting eras of Sunken Gardens’ history. Its colorful images, fascinating videos, and surprising stories continue to bring our past to life in meaningful ways for guests of all ages.

In keeping with its historic legacy, Sunken Gardens created the History Center in its original 1940 entrance and gift shop, a building that had more recently housed the Garden’s tropical birds at night. The birds now have new nighttime accommodations and the building has been restored. Exhibits showcase Sunken Gardens’ important role during the era of Old Florida roadside attractions. It highlights the legacy of the Turner family who created and ran the Gardens for almost 100 years over three generations.

Funding for this endeavor was provided by a grant from the Department of State, Division of Historical Resources, Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation, Penny for Pinellas, and the City of St. Petersburg.
outside of History Center
group of people at the orchid festival

Today

Today, thousands of visitors a year enjoy the serene garden experience that Sunken Gardens offers. The space serves residents and visitors with garden tours, horticultural programs, and special events. Over 100 years after George Turner Sr. began investing in his hobby, Sunken Gardens remains a tranquil oasis nestled in the heart of St. Pete. We are proud to be one of the first and last remaining original Florida roadside attractions.
cream sunken gardens logo with pelican icon
Photo Credit: City of St. Petersburg & Julia Calvert
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