Throwback Thursday: Origins of Japanese Tea Garden, its evolution from cement quarry

Jingu family lived at garden until World War II; garden given new life in 1984

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SAN ANTONIO – With its array of colorful flowers, plants and Koi fish, it may be hard to believe the Japanese Tea Garden was originally just a hole in the ground. 

“The property that we are on right now was part of the Alamo Cement quarry, and about 1908 the quarry ceased operations,” said Mary Jane Verette, president and CEO of the San Antonio Parks Foundation.

Nearly a decade later, City Parks Commissioner Ray Lambert designed plans to build an Asian-style garden to bridge the gap from the quarry to the San Antonio River. 

With the help of private donors, Lambert raised enough money and used prison labor to create the garden in 1918. He originally called it the lily pond.

“There was an orchard in the bottom, originally put in the ponds,” said Verette. “Originally there were no Koi. There were lily pads.”

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A year later, artist Kimi Jingu moved his family to the garden. The name changed to the Japanese Tea Garden and the family opened the Bamboo Room in 1926, where it sold tea and lunch to visitors.

During that time, plants and flowers and even the lighting was donated to the garden.

“People love this garden because it is theirs,” said Verette. “It's a part that they feel connected to. People built this park.”

Jingu died in 1938. The family continued to operate the gardens until the early 1940s when it was forced to leave due to the rise of anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II.

Ted and Ester Wu moved in and the city renamed it Chinese Tea Garden.

The entrance sign, which is a replicate of a Japanese Torii gate and designed by renowned Mexican-artist Dionicio Rodriguez, still bears that name. 

“This is a historic piece of art, more than an entrance to the garden,” said Verette.

The garden went into a state of disrepair in the 1960s, but received new life in 1984 when San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros and former Mayor Lila Cockrell restored the name to the Japanese Tea Garden. The garden has evolved since then.

“In 2008, the ponds had been restored. The waterfall had a recirculating pump installed so that we always have the waterfall,” said Verette.

An augmented reality project is now in the works at the garden to connect visitors to the past, present and future. 

“It’s a place that has a story and we want to share those memories with everybody,” said Verette. “It's wonderful to see the life that revolves around: The energy that evolves around this place.”

About the Authors:

RJ Marquez has been at KSAT since 2010. He's covered a variety of stories and events across the San Antonio area, and is the lead reporter for KSAT Explains. He also covers the Spurs for on-air and digital platforms. You can see RJ regularly on KSAT Explains and Good Morning San Antonio. He also writes a weekly Spurs newsletter.