The Japanese Tea Garden is one of the best local attractions that you probably aren’t visiting. It’s located in Brackenridge Park, along Saint Mary’s Street, southwest of the Zoo. If you have not heard of it, I’m not surprised. I have a theory as to why many San Antonians–even natives–are not aware of it.
But first, some history.
In 1840, German masons broke ground on a limestone quarry in the area that now forms Brackenridge Park. The limestone helped meet the demand for construction materials in fast-growing San Antonio. It was used for a number of notable buildings, including downtown’s Menger Hotel. Then, in 1879, a particular type of limestone was discovered in the quarry. It had the right proportions of lime and clay to produce Portland-type cement. In 1880, investors formed the Alamo Portland and Roman Cement Company (later renamed “Alamo Cement”). Their product was so legit that cement from the plant was used to construct the Texas State Capitol and the Driskill Hotel in Austin.
The chimney of the original Alamo Cement kiln still stands and is visible from the Japanese Tea Garden.
In 1908, the cement plant was relocated to a site near Alamo Heights. If you’ve ever wondered about the smokestacks emblazoned with the word “Alamo” at the Quarry Market, they are remnants from the Alamo Cement factory that once functioned there. This move left the original quarry pit vacant and an eyesore.
Around 1917, City Parks Commissioner Ray Lambert came up with the idea to transform the abandoned pit into an authentic Japanese tea garden. For help, he turned to Kimi Eizo Jingu, a Japanese artist who had served in the United States Army and who, at the time, was selling his watercolor paintings at a shop in downtown San Antonio. Using prison labor and Mr. Jingu’s designs, Commissioner Lambert outfitted the old quarry with walkways, stone arch bridges, an island, a pagoda, and a variety of plants that he imported from gardens in Japan.
Stone from the old quarry was used to construct a house on site, and Mr. Jingu and his family moved in to serve as overseers of the property. In 1926, they opened a tea house–called the Bamboo Room–on the upper level of their house. Mr. Jingu became nationally recognized for his knowledge of teas. The family remained in residence until 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. In response to the anti-Japanese sentiment gripping the city, the Jingu family was evicted, and the property was renamed the “Chinese Tea Garden.”
Around the same time, artist Monicio Rodriguez built an entry gate bearing the garden’s new name. He kept his techniques a secret and did all the work to color and sculpt his cement medium inside a tent.
In 1983, in consideration of the Japanese-Americans who fought in World War II on behalf of the United States, the San Antonio City Council restored the site’s original name, “Japanese Tea Garden.”
By the 1990s, the garden had fallen into disrepair. The ponds ran dry, and the site became a target of graffiti and vandalism. And this brings me to my theory. If you are of my generation, the Japanese Tea Garden was neglected during most of our childhoods and prime field-tripping years. We didn’t grow up with it. If you are of an older generation, the garden may have fallen off your radar screen during the years it lay dormant.
In the early 2000s, the city threatened to close the park permanently for budget reasons, but the San Antonio community and parks supporters successfully lobbied to keep it open. The garden was closed for a year and underwent a multi-million dollar renovation. It was reopened on March 8, 2008. Decedents of Messers. Lambert and Jingu attended the reopening ceremony.
The Japanese Tea Garden is a Registered Texas Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In recognition of the transformation of an abandoned rock quarry into an urban oasis, Architectural Record described the site as “a remarkable example of intelligent adaptation of design to existing conditions.” In November 2009, the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects bestowed a Twenty-Five Year Award saluting the garden’s outstanding architectural design.
The Japanese Tea Garden is well-worth a visit. Admission is free, and it is open daily from dawn until dusk. The official park website states that the garden is wheelchair accessible. While this may be true, my advice to you is that you not bring a stroller. If you walk through the garden itself (rather than admiring it from the pavilion that overlooks it), you’ll encounter a lot of stairs.
And you will want to walk through the garden, to get an up-close view of the koi ponds and waterfall.
Designated parking is available right by the Japanese Tea Garden entrance. Plan on your visit taking about half an hour–more if you plan to take a lot of pictures. You can extend your outing by getting lunch or a snack at the newly reopened Jingu House café (the old Bamboo Room), which sits right inside the garden entrance.
I do hope you’ll pay the Japanese Tea Garden a visit. If you do, please tell us about your experience in the comments below!