Sunken Gardens opens history center to public

Sunken Gardens’ History Center is now officially open to the public. City leaders in St. Petersburg, along with the family that founded the Gardens more than a century ago cut the ribbon Monday morning.

The Center showcases the Gardens’ role in Florida’s tourism industry.

“People started coming after church, and they just wanted to walk around his backyard because it’s so pretty,” Tom Turner, whose grandfather George Turner Sr. started Sunken Gardens, said.

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Turner said Sunken Gardens is an attraction he grew up working at and a place he calls his backyard.

“He said, ‘well, gee, I could sell little trinkets down here too,’ so they built like a little gift shop down there, and he started charging two for a quarter,” Turner said.

That gift shop has been transformed into the Gardens’ History Center. The building was the original entrance and housed the Gardens’ tropical birds at night at one point. 

“We knew we wanted to revitalize this building, restore this historic 1940s building, and we knew we needed to tell the story of this amazing family that ran the gardens for three generations, that founded the gardens back in the early 1900s,” Jennifer Tyson, the education coordinator for Sunken Gardens, said.

According to Tyson, the city bought the Gardens from the Turners close to a little more than 20 years ago. Two years ago, the Gardens’ staff started writing a grant to revitalize the building. 

They used funding from the Florida Division of Historical Resources, money from Penny for Pinellas, Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation and money from the city to pay for the project, according to Tyson.

“It’s a surreal experience to see the Turner family who founded this garden and worked to manage this garden for three generations here after over 20 years of the city purchasing it,” Tyson said. “It’s just a surreal and wonderful experience to see everybody enjoying their legacy.”

St. Pete Mayor Ken Welch said more than 150,000 people visit the Gardens each year. He said it brings in more than $2 million in revenue for the city.

“As we change and grow as a community, the authenticity and the history of our city becomes even more important,” Welch said. “The historical assets of our city must be preserved and maintained and that’s why this history center is so important.”

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Tom Turner said his grandfather and other family members who weren’t there to see the transformation would be pleasantly overwhelmed.

“We had some real good times, and then we had some harder times and at the very end thinking what it could’ve been they would be really proud of what’s happening today,” Turner said.

The Sunken Gardens is open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday noon to 4:30 p.m. 

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