History Comes Alive at Sunken Gardens

Kathy Turner Lee remembers hollering to her mother, “Going over to the gardens,” as she ran out her front door on 18th Avenue and to a side gate that led into Sunken Gardens. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Sunken Gardens may have been one of the most famous roadside attractions in Florida, but to Lee, the four-acre tropical oasis was just the family business that her grandparents, George and Eula Turner, Sr., founded decades before. It was like an extension of her own backyard.  

“The gardens were a big part of my childhood,” Lee recalls. “My brother and I would run around by ourselves and no one thought anything of it.” She spent hours immersed in exotic tropical plantings that lined winding hexagonal pathways, so lush and thick that it was impossible to see through them. In the winter, kerosene grove heaters, also known as smudge pots, would be set out to the protect the fruit trees and plants when a dip in temperature threatened to bring frost to the area.

The original 1940 entrance in an historic photo.

It was during this era that St. Pete’s reputation as a tourist destination was in full swing and no visit to the city was complete without a stop at the gardens.

Birds from around the world were part of the attraction. There was the original flock of pink flamingos, as well as peacocks and two aviaries, including one that visitors could walk through. Dozens of blue and gold macaws, toucans, parakeets, cockatoos, myna birds, and roseate spoonbills dazzled visitors. Beauty pageants were common too, as were visits from celebrities like baseball greats Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel, and comedians Jonathan Winters and Danny Thomas.  

When she wasn’t roaming the gardens, Lee would explore the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant next door. The building had closed in the mid 1960s and the Turner family bought it, eventually turning it into a new garden entrance, along with the “world’s largest gift shop” and the famous King of Kings wax museum depicting the life of Jesus. But before renovations began, it was a great big empty place for Lee to roam around. 

The original lettering of Turner’s Sunken Gardens was uncovered in renovation of the 1940 entrance into the new History Center.

In 1972, Lee’s father sold his share of the family business to his brother Ralph, who took the gardens to the next level with even more unusual exhibits.  

The gardens began breeding macaws, which were hand-raised and trained to skate, paint, and even play basketball during the popular bird shows. African pygmy goats, squirrel monkeys, and miniature kangaroos also entertained visitors, as did popular alligator-wrestling shows. 

But unfortunately, by the mid-to-late 1980s, attendance at Sunken Gardens and all Florida roadside attractions began to dwindle as Orlando’s Disney World became the most prominent tourist destination in the state. For nearly a decade the Turner family tried unsuccessfully to sell the venue to potential buyers, who envisioned an odd assortment of new developments – everything from townhomes to a nudist resort. Finally in 1999, St. Pete residents approved a referendum ballot and voted for a one-time tax increase, making it possible for the City of St. Petersburg to purchase Sunken Gardens, safeguarding its future forever.

Making history come alive.

This past fall, Sunken Gardens celebrated the completion of a new History Center showcasing the attraction’s interesting and quirky story. Colorful floor-to-ceiling display panels with photos, newspaper articles, and other items of interest are now on display in a small historic 1940s building that once served as the entrance to Sunken Gardens when it faced 18th Avenue.

With funding from the Florida Division of Historical Resources, Penny for Pinellas, Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation, and the City of St. Petersburg, Sunken Gardens staff worked with consultants to renovate the 440-square-foot building and bring it back to its former ambience, complete with colorful hexagonal floor tiles, beautiful tile roof, and large windows.

Jennifer Tyson, education and volunteer coordinator for Sunken Gardens, spearheaded the History Center project, working with the Turner family and Sunken Gardens volunteers to accomplish the enormous task of organizing artifacts and researching the history, dating all the way back to the beginning when George and Eula Turner first planted fruit trees in their backyard and later welcomed customers to Turner’s Papaya Farm.

A new orchid exhibit area is part of the History Center renovation.

Lee had a big hand in helping bring the History Center to fruition. In 2018, after she retired from the Pinellas County School System, she finally had the time to look through a treasure trove of boxes she had inherited from her dad.  Inside was a fabulous find: hundreds of old photos, family memorabilia, newspaper clippings, postcards, and promotional posters, all related to the gardens. She even found a few outstanding gems, such as love letters between her grandparents, George and Eula, excerpts of which are now included on the History Center display panels.

Like a detective, Lee was relentless in her quest to make sure that whatever was written about the gardens would be historically accurate. She went to courthouses in Tampa and Clearwater to research early tax records and to local libraries to look at maps and read hundreds of old newspaper articles. “I was just trying to make sense of everything we had,” says Lee. “And as I looked into the history more deeply, my ancestors became more real. I had known a little of their story, but I learned so much more about them, and that changed my experience of coming to the gardens as a child.” One of the many interesting details she was able to clarify: Her grandfather established the gardens in 1911, not 1903. “It didn’t change the story, but it was fun for me to discover,” says Lee.  

Mayor Ken Welch enjoys the colorful display panels during the ribbon cutting for the new Sunken Gardens History Center.

Last October, Mayor Ken Welch was among local officials who attended the new History Center ribbon cutting. In addressing the crowd, he commented that “as we change and grow as a community, the authenticity and the history of our city becomes even more important. The historical assets of our city must be preserved and maintained and that’s why this history center is so important.”

For anyone who enjoys learning more about St. Pete’s early history, a trip to the new Sunken Gardens History Center is definitely worth it. Learn more at sunkengardensfoundation.org