Historic Japanese Tea Garden

The Japanese Tea Garden has a glorious history of over 90 years, from the time it was an operating rock quarry to today, as one of the most loved educational and cultural resources in San Antonio. In 1899, the San Antonio Water Works Company, through its president, George W. Brackenridge, donated 199 acres to the City of San Antonio for a public park. This tract comprises the largest portion of the park that today bears Brackenridge’s name.

The park officially opened to the public in 1901. There was still an operating rock quarry west of the park leased by the City to stone cutters since the mid-1800s. In 1880, Alamo Portland and Roman Cement Company (later called Alamo Cement Company) began to use the quarry. When the company needed rail lines to expand production, it purchased a new site and closed its Brackenridge Park operation in 1908. Between the quarry and San Antonio River to the east was an 11-acre tract of land owned by Mrs. Emma Koehler, widow of Pearl Brewery owner, Otto Koehler.

Mrs. Koehler donated this land to the City in 1915 for a public park. Its location adjacent to the abandoned quarry posed a challenge for City Parks Commissioner, Ray Lambert. Lambert ultimately came up with the idea of a lily pond, which eventually became the Japanese Tea Garden. With plans from his park engineer, and no money, Lambert was able to construct the Garden. Between July, 1917 and May, 1918, Lambert shaped the quarry into a complex that included walkways, stone arch bridges, an island and a Japanese pagoda.

The garden was termed the lily pond, and local residents donated bulbs to beautify the area. Exotic plants were provided by the City nursery, and the City Public Service Company donated the lighting system. The pagoda was roofed with palm leaves from trees in City parks. When completed, Lambert had spent only $7,000. In 1919, The American City magazine reported that “the city of San Antonio has recently completed a municipal lily pond and a Japanese garden which we believe are unique.”

In 1926, at the City’s invitation, Kimi Enzo Jingu, a local Japanese-American artist, moved to the garden and opened the Bamboo Room, where light lunches and tea were served. After Mr. Jingu’s death in the late 1930s, his family continued to operate the tea garden until 1942, when they were evicted because of anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II. In 1984, the area was rededicated as the Japanese Tea Garden in a ceremony attended by the Jingu’s children and representatives of the Japanese government.

In recognition of the Tea Garden’s origin as a rock quarry that played a prominent role in the development of the cement business, as well as its later redevelopment as a garden, the site is designated as a Texas Civil Engineering Landmark, a Registered Texas Historic Landmark, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

San Antonio Parks Foundation

The restoration of the Japanese Tea Garden is being accomplished as a public-private partnership between the Parks and Recreation Department of the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Parks Foundation and its affiliated organization, Friends of the Parks. The estimated cost of the completed project is $6,000,000. The San Antonio Parks Foundation initiated a capital campaign to raise the required matching funds from the private sector; and foundations, corporations and individuals responded with generous grants, indicative of the broad community support for the restoration project.

Phase one in the restoration process, completed in 2007, included the restoration of the pavilion and the stabilization of the Jingu House. The second phase encompassed the repair and restoration of the ponds and the waterfall. The Foundation raised over $850,000 towards the $1.2 million restoration that included the installation of a recirculation system to provide a safe habitat for the Koi and aquatic plants. This phase was completed in March, 2008.

The third phase included the restoration and adaptive reuse of the Jingu House, for which the Foundation raised over $1,000,000. Reconstruction on the Jingu House began in the fall of 2009, and was completed in October of 2011. The Japanese Tea Garden and the Jingu House are now open for reservations, and serve as the perfect backdrop for your wedding or next special event.