Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens
A Hidden Treasure
By Adam Porter – From the Archives
December 25, 2015
This artistic, architectural and botanical marvel is the result of the combined efforts of the most creative minds of the day and a small seed of wisdom passed down from Bok’s grandmother: “Make you the world a bit better and more beautiful because you have lived in it.”
History of Bok Tower
Young Edward took this message to heart, but it would be years before he would act on it. As a six-year-old immigrant from the Netherlands, Bok was a stranger to the language, customs and culture of his adopted country. He learned quickly and grew to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and successful publisher. But, though business was in his blood, so too were the childhood memories of peace and beauty carried with him across the Atlantic form his home.
Despite a growing reputation as an advocate for humanitarian causes and world peace, Bok was not yet the benevolent visionary with the ultimate green thumb. To his neighbors in the exclusive Florida resort community of Mountain Lake, he was just another wealthy winter resident, albeit one who enjoyed the quiet solitude of long walks in the woods. Bok especially loved hiking in the countryside near the Mountain Lake community with its endless panorama of rolling hills, virgin forests, citrus groves and prairie grassland tucked away in the peaks and valleys of Florida’s Lake Wales Ridge. In the heart of this country stood Iron Mountain at nearly 300 feet above sea level, one of the highest points in Florida. The venue offered dramatic sunsets and an ambiance that, according to Bok, “touched the soul with its beauty and quiet.”
It was on one of these jaunts that Edward Bok first grasped the idea that would become Bok Tower Gardens. He foresaw a park, blooming year-round, and a tower stretching into the sky. He heard the chimes of his childhood in Holland where the bells of the carillon rang from watchtowers all across the lowlands.
To bring his vision to life, Bok enlisted the talents of two leading architects and a host of masterful artisans. Acclaimed architect Milton Medary would design the Singing Tower and Frederick Olmstead Jr., whose father had conceived New York’s Central Park, the gardens. Sculptor Lee Lawrie, metalworker Samuel Yellin, tile worker J. H. Allen and John Taylor Bellfounders would round out a crew Bok credited with “being the geniuses who carried my conception to realization.”
On Feb. 1, 1929 as Bok, his team of architects and artisans and other luminaries from around the world looked on, President Calvin Coolidge delivered the dedication address. Less than a year later, Edward Bok passed away. He was buried at the foot of the tower, a fitting tribute to the man some have said poured the last and best of himself into his dream of beauty, peace and tranquility. There are those who claim his spirit still haunts the grounds, strolling the garden paths and standing on the ridge that was his inspiration.
In the decades since his death, tens of thousands of visitors from around the world have been blessed by his vision. Still, despite its popularity, the Singing Tower remains a secret getaway – an escape into peace and beauty that repeat guests and appreciative members guard with quiet reverence and genuine gratitude for the unique way it touches each of us.
Visiting the Tower
This revelation begins the moment you turn off the highway. The road leading back to the gardens winds through citrus groves, which offer a tangible barrier between the outside world and Edward Bok’s Eden. Parking is spacious and free, and don’t worry if you came in you RV, parking spaces are designed to accommodate large rigs.
Your tour begins in the elegant visitor’s center with a gallery of artifacts and documents from the history of the tower and an introductory movie about Edward Bok and his dream. From there the sidewalk leads you past a display showcasing what’s blooming in the gardens, the gift shop and the Blue Palmetto Café. Then, you enter the Garden.
Your first stop will be Window By the Pond where you can see Florida tickseed, the state wildflower, as well as cardinal flowers, yellow canna and swamp fern. Next, in the Open Glade, a longleaf pine forest is undergoing restoration. Watch your step here, gopher tortoises love this habitat and are not picky about where they dig their telltale dens. On your walk you will also see say palmetto and native scrub habitat. In addition to the longleaf pines, you can marvel at spectacular live oaks whose branches arch to provide shade for several species of sun-shy flowers.
You will discover plants here you will likely see nowhere else. Bok Tower Gardens’ Conservation Program has been called a botanical Noah’s Ark. Employees and volunteers gather seeds of rare native plant species from all over Florida and bring them to the Gardens. Bok’s collection of rare plants includes both the living plants on display and a seed bank. This work has been recognized as making a critical difference in the species’ survival.
Continue your easy stroll and suddenly the tower appears – transcendent – though you could swear it was not there seconds before. The Georgia-pink marble monolith is surrounded by a tall iron fence, a subtle reminder that this is a place of rest and – for one – final rest.
The reflecting pool on the tower’s north side is both literal and figurative. Its surface captures a mirror image of the Singing Tower only broken by the occasional passing swan. It is also an invitation to stop and consider everything and nothing; it is a place to be inspired and to simply just be. Said Ed Bok, “We will present mankind with a spot which will reach out in its beauty and fill souls with the quiet, the repose, the influence of the beautiful.”
At the base of the tower Koi wind in lazy circles, occasionally breaching the surface for hand thrown fish food. Swans casually float in, around and through the Victoria lilies with pads strong enough to hold a child. Turn from this idyllic scene and you can see the Great Golden Door, the only accessible entrance to the tower Samuel Yellin etched vignettes into the polished brass façade potraying, one square at a time, the biblical story of creation and the subsequent fall of man. It is a poignant reminder of what happens when humans take the gift of paradise for granted.
Allow your eyes to drift away from the shining door and up the hand-carved pink marble coquina and ceramic tile walls to the 205-foot-tall peak of the Sing Tower and your jaw drops along the way. It is the perfect culmination of neo-Gothic and art deco. When most visitors see it for the first time, the charm of the tower connects on a more emotional level. The massive 60-bellcarillon occupies the top four floors of the tower. Individual bells range from 16 pounds to 12 tons: their daily concerts intone a treasured heritage of the Old World.
Bok Tower Gardens: the touchstone of a legacy begun when a man wrote the last of himself into the pages of history in order to give all who came after an eternal gift of beauty. Whether it is the majesty or the serenity that takes your breath away, you will find much more than you expected here. Regardless of what moves you, each time you venture here it will be a walk to remember. Bok Tower Gardens is located at 1151 Tower Blvd., Lake Wales, Fl. 33853. For admission prices, carillon concert schedules, program dates and special rates, call 863.676.1408.
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