Remnants of Oriental Gardens removed

Remnants of Oriental Gardens removed

Former tourist attraction filled in for development

Oriental Gardens Road, just off San Jose Boulevard in San Marco, was once home to Jacksonville’s darling of botanical bliss – its namesake, Oriental Gardens.

In operation from 1937 until the land was sold in 1954 and platted for 33 new homes, all that remained until recently were a small lake, a wrought-iron fence, and an ornamental fountain on the property of a home at 1124 Oriental Gardens Drive.

That property was recently sold by the Claire Gray Scott trust, held by Claire Scott, whose father originally bought three lots at the location in 1954.

OrientalGardens_01“It was a lovely place to grow up,” recounted Scott, whose family moved into its new home when she was a high-school junior in the mid-early 1950s. “I enjoyed the place and loved the fact that we were moving into it,” Scott said.

Scott’s father, Harold Williams, built up the concrete around the lake to prevent drainage, and fashioned a pump for the fountain from a water-based air-conditioning unit. He topped the fountain with a cherub holding a birdbath, Scott said. “I always thought there should be something oriental in the lake. I weaseled them into putting on the (ornamental Japanese) pagoda.”

With the sale of the property in June 2015 to another trust, held by Scott’s long-time friend, Susan Sheldon, the remaining two lots were broken out for development and will eventually be the site of two new luxury homes.

During excavation of the property in October, the concrete wall, which was built around the lake by Scott’s father, was removed, as were the pagoda and remnants of the fountain. The gray, weather-beaten, wrought-iron fence stood in silent testimony to a grander floral time as heavy-equipment operator and Big Cats Construction site foreman, Josh Martin, used a large, tractor backhoe to load excavated dirt into a tandem dump truck during the site’s transformation.

As the machinery chewed its way over sand and silt, it was difficult to tell this was once an idyllic, 18-acre site that attracted tourists the world over to Jacksonville.

Starting as vacant land in 1925 along St. Johns River, this site became home to Riverside resident George W. Clark’s plentiful botanical undertakings. By 1937, Oriental Gardens had bloomed to life and was home to numerous oak and palm trees, bamboo and banana trees, scenic pools, and bucolic walkways which meandered throughout the site’s numerous tropical plants and hydrangeas.

Best of all, it was finally opened to the public in that year.

OrientalGardens_03During its heyday from 1937 until 1954, Oriental Gardens’ pastoral vistas provided stunning backdrops for numerous yearbook, fashion, and wedding photographs. Ornate fountains, Oriental-style archways and gazebos with benches, wooden footbridges crossing small creeks, a waterwheel, beautifully crafted wrought-iron gates and gate posts, and centuries-old oaks were only some of the features waiting to delight visitors.

While in the area, guests were greeted on the hour with a chime concert courtesy of “The Singing Gardens of Jacksonville.” A gift shop sold various styles of beautiful, linen postcards, a number of which are still available as vintage items, new and used, on a popular worldwide auction site.

Scott laughed when she recalled the times in her youth she and Sheldon gained access to the gardens without paying the 50-cent entrance fee. “We lived near Laurel Road (near the gardens), and we’d throw sticks over the fence for the dogs to get, so we’d have to chase the dogs, and that was our way in,” she said.

The girls’ attraction to the gardens was understandable. “There were really gorgeous, exotic plants that grew in the water. There was a little Oriental building (the gift shop). It was a great setting for a development because there were so many blooming things,” said Scott.

Now the two newly available lots from the former gardens will soon host new homes. The final chapter of Oriental Gardens will remain only in a street name – Oriental Gardens Drive.

By Vince Iampietro
Resident Community News

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