“Make…the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” – Edward Bok’s Grandmother
Built in 1928-1929, Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, Florida is a National Historic Landmark. Edward W. Bok made his fortune as an acclaimed author and publisher of Ladies Home Journal. During the winters, he and his family traveled to central Florida. Mr. Bok enjoyed long walks on Iron Mountain, one of the highest points (298 ft. above sea level) in the state. After he retired in 1919, he bought a 50 acre tract of land on top of Iron Mountain where he hoped to establish a bird sanctuary and a place of serenity and peace. Mr. Bok enlisted the help of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to create “a spot of beauty second to none in this country.”
When Edward Bok acquired the property it was covered in sandhill scrub. Before they could begin, the land was cleared, an irrigation system installed, and tons of rich soil brought in.
Once the land was prepared, they put in acres of ferns, palms, and live oaks that provide the backdrop for colorful flowering plants like azaleas, camelias, and magnolia. As you stroll down the developed pathways, you can see over 150 varieties of camelias, more than 100 varieties of azaleas as well as orchids, irises, bird of paradise, bromeliads, and many other flowering plants.
Moreover, the garden has 126 species of birds that make their home there. Throughout the landscape garden, there are many quiet spots and places to sit and rest as you enjoy the beauty around you and the picturesque views from the summit of Iron Mountain.
The centerpiece of Edward Bok’s gardens is a 205 foot tall carillon called the Singing Tower. Mr. Bok had long admired the carillons found in Europe and he wanted to build one of the world’s finest here in the United States. Designed by Milton Medary of Philadelphia, this Neo Gothic and Art Deco tower is faced with pink and gray Georgian marble and Florida coquina. The top third of the carillon is adorned with ceramic tiles that depict live oaks covered in Spanish moss. In addition, there are sculptures of herons atop the tower and there are sculptures of eagles carved at the base of the bell chamber. Inside the bell chamber are 60 bronze bells that were founded in England. The smallest bell weighs 16 lbs. and the largest weighs 11+ tons. The total weight of all the bells is 63 tons! The Singing Tower’s main door consists of 12 brass panels that depict the Biblical story of Creation which was designed by Samuel Yellin. The construction of the Tower was completed in a mere 19 months. It was dedicated and opened to the public in early 1929. President Calvin Coolidge was present for said event. This is truly an impressive work of art and architecture.
Bok Tower Gardens offer daily carillon music concerts at 1 PM and 3 PM. One of the interesting features is that you can watch the carillonneur play the bells via a close circuit television. The current carillonneur is Geert D’hollander who has received first prize in more that 30 international competitions. It so happened that on the day of our visit the Carillon Fellow, Alex Johnson, was providing the live performance.
Along with the gardens and the Singing Tower, you can also tour Pinewood Estate and gardens. This property is adjacent to the Bok Tower Gardens. It is a 20 room Mediterranean style manor house which was built by Charles Austin Buck in 1932. Mr. Buck, a Bethlehem Steel VP, acquired the property and enlisted the services of Mr. Olmsted’s firm to design the gardens and determine where to place the house on the 7.5 acre lot.
The Olmsted firm designed two different gardens that surround the house. On one side, is an Italian-style courtyard with a frog fountain and on the other side of the house is an English-style garden with a long rolling lawn that descends to a pond. There is also an Oriental moon gate garden near the dining room porch.
The 12,900 square foot mansion, originally called “El Retiro,” took three years to construct and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The interior of the house boasts hand-painted tiles throughout and adobe tile floors that have different designs in each room. Intricately hand-carved cypress doors add to the house’s aesthetics. To keep the house cool, there are many windows and doors that maximize airflow. The house is furnished with many original Buck family heirlooms. Bok Tower Gardens acquired the property in 1970 and opened up the house for self-guided tours. There are docents throughout the house to answer questions and to provide additional information about Pinewood Estate and the Buck family. We found this to be another lovely place to spend some time during our visit to Bok Tower Gardens.
Here is some additional information about the Bok Tower Gardens:
1 -To visit Pinewood Estate house, you must pay an additional admission fee. The gardens around the house are free to tour and Pinewood Estate is just a short walk from the Singing Tower.
2 – There is a cafe, a gift shop, a plant shop, and a Welcome Center at the entrance to Bok Tower Gardens. You can order food from the cafe and enjoy a picnic anywhere in the Gardens.
3 – The staff offers free walking tours throughout the day. If you are not up to walking the paths through the gardens, there is also shuttle service to both the Singing Tower and Pinewood Estates.
4 – There is a 2.7 acre Children’s Garden where families can play and learn about nature. We saw a number of school children visiting the Bok Tower and the Children’s Garden the day we were there.
5 – The Bok Tower Garden staff offer different educational programs and activities in both the Alexander Discovery Center and the Outdoor Kitchen area on a regular basis.
David and I thoroughly enjoyed our day trip to Bok Tower Garden. It is wonderful that Edward Bok heeded his grandmother’s advice and left us such a beautiful place for all to enjoy.