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Sunken Garden Theater
3875 N. St. Mary's St.
San Antonio, TX 78212
Located in historic Brackenridge Park, Sunken Garden Theater has long been a local favorite for hosting annual events such as Taste of New Orleans and the Margarita Pour-off, as well as staging concerts featuring Carlos Santana and other well known national acts. Originally carved into an old Limestone Quarry in the 1930's, the San Antonio Civic Opera Society quickly established the site as a premiere performing arts venue. Renovated numerous times, and having played host for thousands of events, the Theater, centrally located in the heart of San Antonio, remains popular with concert goers of all ages.
|Class I:||Commercial events with admission charge*
$3,000 to $6,000: 15% of all gross sales (food, beverage, tickets, etc)
Minimum $3,000 to a maximum of $6,000
|Class II:|| 501c-3 Non-Profit events with admission charge*
$1,500 to $3,000: 10% all gross sales (food, beverage, tickets, etc)
Minimum $1,500 to a maximum of $3,000
|Class III:||Events with no admission charge, and which do not feature live music*
$500 to $1,500: 10% of all gross sales (food, beverage, tickets, etc)
Minimum $500 to a maximum of $1,500
|*In addition to the above rental rates, all tickets issued are subject to a $1.00 theater operation fee. Maximum capacity for all events at Sunken Garden Theater is 4,800. Fees and attendance limits are established by City Ordinance.|
*In addition to the above rental rates, all tickets issued are subject to a $1.00 theater operation fee. Maximum capacity for all events at Sunken Garden Theater is 4,800. Fees and attendance limits are established by City Ordinance.
The City of San Antonio leased its hard rock quarry in what is today Brackenridge Park from the middle 19th to early 20th centuries. Alamo Roman and Portland Cement Company, later called Alamo Cement Company, used the quarry from 1880 until 1908 when it moved to a new facility with rail access north of the City limits. The abandoned quarry was adjacent to Brackenridge Park that had been donated to the City in 1899, and to a tract owned by the Koehler Family that was donated to the City for park land in 1915.
As early as 1914, the city's cultural leaders and park officials began to discuss new uses for the abandoned quarry. Some saw the unique, natural setting of the quarry's deep excavations shaped in a huge semicircle as the backdrop for an open-air Greek amphitheater. Observing the site, the manager of the Boston National Grand Opera Company urged the city to consider such a facility, saying that, "It could be made one of the show places in the country."
It was Ray Lambert, appointed Parks Commissioner in 1915, who transformed the City’s old quarry into a civic attraction. On the northern portion of the site where the Cement Company’s kilns had been located, Lambert built a lushly landscaped lily pond that he named the Japanese Garden. To the south, City workers constructed the Texas Star Garden, an enormous designed landscape with patterns formed by rocks and flowers. Newspapers as early as 1926 refer to the area as "the sunken garden."
The natural acoustic features of the quarry drew local performers to the site, and in 1926, the Chaminade Choral Society gave a well-received performance in the Texas Star Garden. The Society's president, Mrs. Eli Hertzberg, urged that the area be considered for outdoor musical and other events too large for the Municipal Auditorium. In late 1927, Mrs. Hertzberg suggested that such a theater be named the Tobin Memorial Amphitheater to honor Mayor John W. Tobin who had recently died while in office. Mrs. Hertzberg estimated that an outdoor amphitheater at this location could seat 50,000 to 60,000 people.
The San Antonio Civic Opera Company took up the cause and presented a performance of "Pirates of Penzance" on a temporary stage on July 12, 1928. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum, now famous for his design of Mount Rushmore, drew the first plans for the theater that "he said would present a Grecian style of architecture." An illustration of his design appeared in the San Antonio Light on January 19, 1930. Details of Borglum’s design differed from the final design that was completed by local architect Harvey P. Smith. Construction of the theater was authorized to begin in February 1930, and was completed in time for the dedication on July 14, 1930.
While City records consistently refer to the theater prior to its completion as the Open Air Theater, the dedication program called it the Sunken Garden Theater. The San Antonio Civic Opera Company presented the opening performance, "The Bohemian Girl. " The program stated "This is the beautiful theatre that we have longed for-which we have talked about for so long, and that we are dedicating tonight."
The Sunken Garden Theater facility as it appears today was completed in 1937 as part of the Texas Centennial celebration. Renovation and additions at that time included dressing rooms, stage improvements, and a concrete floor for the theater seating area. Architects for the Centennial project, completed by the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.), were Harvey P. Smith, George Willis and Charles T. Boelhauwe. A concession area was built by the National Youth Administration (N.Y.A.) in 1937-38. A bronze plaque installed on the east wing wall read, "1836-1936. Sunken Garden Theatre, a memorial to the Heroes of the Texas Revolution." Another plaque recognized the San Antonio Civic Opera Co., founded by Mrs. Lewis Krams-Beck.
The Sunken Garden Theater became a favorite venue for symphonic, jazz, dance, drama, and pop music performances. The Parks and Recreation Department’s Cultural Program assumed management of the theater in the early 1970s. In early 1984, a $320,000 renovation of the theater was completed.
History written by Maria Watson Pfeiffer
Special Projects Officer
Parks and Recreation Department