As plans ramp up for renovations in Brackenridge Park, the old Sunken Garden Theater has become a primary focus.

City officials unveiled renderings Friday at the 91-year-old attraction showing a revamped entertainment venue with an enclosed stage and a covered pavilion over a fixed seating area.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and and Bexar County Commissioner Trish DeBerry (Pct. 3) recounted their early experiences with the theater, including Nirenberg seeing the reunited Grand Funk Railroad as a Trinity University student and DeBerry recounting concerts by Cheap Trick and the Goo Goo Dolls.

They were joined at the press conference by City Manager Erik Walsh and Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2), in whose district the theater sits.

“I think of this as one of the great gems of the East side of San Antonio,” McKee-Rodriguez said.

He said a renovated amphitheater would attract top musical talent. “We’re limited right now. Artists are choosing to go to Dallas and Austin and Houston, and everywhere but San Antonio, and we think it’s about time that we get some of them here.”

DeBerry and Nirenberg focused on their own experiences at the venue from years past. “You talk to any San Antonian, and there is a very special memory associated with the Sunken Garden Theater,” DeBerry said.

Nirenberg noted that the theater has been neglected. “As you can see, what was once a jewel is now in a state of disrepair, and that is going to change,” he said, assuring that the renovation plan will receive priority in the upcoming 2022 municipal bond.

Kirk Feldmann, a consultant on the project who worked on the late 1980s restoration of the Majestic Theatre, put the total project cost at $62 million, but emphasized that within the first 10 years of operation, the renovated venue could return $239 million in economic impact to the city, including 1,000 jobs during construction and 170 full time-equivalent jobs afterwards.

Feldmann estimated that if the 2022 bond includes funding for the theater, construction could begin in September of next year and continue for 24 to 30 months, with a projected opening in the summer of 2024.

The renovated amphitheater will accommodate 5,900 fixed seats, including a VIP seating area, and 1,100 uncovered lawn seats around the perimeter of the covered pavilion.

A conceptual rendering of an updated Sunken Garden Theater shows all new facilities and accommodations for visitors.
A conceptual rendering of proposed renovations showing seating at the Sunken Garden Theater. Credit: Courtesy / OTJ Architects

Leroy Sance of the San Antonio Zulu Association, which has made use of the Sunken Garden Theater for various events over the past 34 years, said his organization will benefit from the new fixed stage setup, large stage-side screens, permanent concessions area, and permanent restrooms, because those elements currently have to be put in place for each event.

Musician and co-owner of the Lonesome Rose honky tonk Garrett T. Capps announced that he “moshed” at Sunken Garden Theater as a young teenager, and said the renovated venue would attract talent from around the nation to visit San Antonio to perform.

“I believe that the more high-quality talent, performing arts-wise, that comes to town, helps inspire the local community, whether that’s artists or just appreciators,” he said.

After the announcements, Brackenridge Park Conservancy board member and author Lewis Fisher offered some history.

He said the theater was originally built by the city in 1930 for the San Antonio Civic Opera Company, due to the popularity of light opera such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. When the Great Depression rendered the city unable to finish construction due to lack of funding, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) stepped in to help complete the project in 1935.

The stone columns at the Sunken Garden Theater flank the historic stage.
Stone columns at the Sunken Garden Theater flank the historic stage that dates back to the 1930s. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The WPA association assures the historical value of the venue, DeBerry said. Noting the coincidence of its construction as the country emerged from nationwide economic devastation with today’s pandemic situation and federal stimulus funding, she said, “This ‘grande dame’ of a theater deserves reinvestment. And not just from a cultural perspective, but from a historical perspective.”

Brackenridge Park Conservancy board President Joe Calvert recalled his own family memories of the park and the theater. “Like Brackenridge Park itself, the Sunken Garden Theater has created enduring priceless memories for generations of our citizens,” he said, pointing out that the future of the park and theater are in the hands of San Antonio citizens, who will vote on the 2022 bond.

“This is in our hands,” said Conservancy Executive Director Lynn Bobbitt in closing the press conference. “It’s in the community’s hands, and we want to work together to bring it back.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...