The interactive sculpture "Public Drums" is installed at Ochoa Park on Tucson's south side.


One of Tucson's most popular places to get married is at the city courthouse downtown, where each year hundreds of couples exchange vows in quick, informal ceremonies meant more for speed than atmosphere.

For an unusual place to get hitched, however, Tucsonans are increasingly heading just west of downtown to a collection of sculptures built along the banks of the Santa Cruz River. It's known as the Garden of Gethsemane.

"I sign off on many weddings and quinceañeras there," said Peg Weber, northwest district administrator for the city of Tucson's Parks and Recreation Department. "We have at least 25 a year. It's fairly popular. I feel like Pastor Peg."

The display was never intended as a nuptial venue when it was built in 1938 by Felix Lucero, a sculptor who traveled the country for 19 years constructing statues as a pledge to God for sparing his life during World War I.

As the story goes, Lucero was critically wounded during a battle in France in 1919, and with what he assumed was one of his final breaths he made a vow to dedicate 20 years of his life to God if he survived.

Tucson was Lucero's last stop on his sculpting tour. The Garden of Gethsemane - a replica of a similar garden near Jerusalem, the scene of Christ's agony and betrayal the night before his crucifixion - ended up becoming his life's work, Weber said.

The original sculptures were built in the dry riverbed of the Santa Cruz. But shortly after their completion, a flash flood washed the display away.

Lucero eventually built a second set of statues, completing them in 1946 on the east bank of the Santa Cruz. That display was moved to its current location, on the northeast corner of West Congress Street and North Bonita Avenue, in 1982 after a series of flood-control projects made the move necessary, Weber said.

The Garden of Gethsemane is under the control of the city Parks and Recreation Department, though it's officially referred to as a "special place" by the department. It's open daily from 7 a.m. to sunset and can be rented for $26 for a day, Weber said.

To keep it from falling too much into disrepair - the sculptures are made of plaster, concrete and chicken wire - Weber said her department does its best to restore pieces when funds are available.

One such restoration project, done in 2008, involved fixing a crucifix that had begun to sway and was at risk of falling over. But because of overhead power lines, the department couldn't use a crane to lift the crucifix over the walls, Weber said.

"Instead, we had 12 staff (members) lift it up and over the walls."

Contact reporter Brian J. Pedersen at 573-4224 or