Florida's Sanctuary: The Bok Tower Gardens
Author: Robin Draper
Date: September 28, 2014 12:00 am
Category: Where to Go
Region: Central Florida
Location: 1151 Tower Blvd., Lake Wales, Florida 33853
The Bok Tower
You don’t have to be a gardener to love this Florida adventure. For as long as I remember, friends have raved about the Bok Tower Gardens. I couldn’t figure it out…what is a tall stone tower doing in the middle of Florida surrounded by gardens? And who is Bok?
Strolling through the Bok Tower gardens
Located in the heart of Central Florida, between Tampa and Orlando near Lake Wales, the Bok Tower Gardens includes 50 acres of luscious vegetation, a 205-foot art deco Singing Tower Carillon and a Mediterranean style home called the Pinewood Estate.
Enjoy the seasonal flowers at the Bok Gardens
It all started with Edward Bok, a Dutch immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1869 at the age of six. Unable to speak English as a young boy, Bok worked tirelessly and fastidiously as an office boy in the Western Union Telegraph Company, eventually becoming publisher of the popular Ladies Home Journal. He was also a Pulitzer Prize winning author and an advocate for the environment and world peace.
Edward Bok, [photo courtesy Bok Tower Gardens]
A dedicated humanitarian, he wanted to “give something back” to the country that gave him so much.
While growing up, Bok visited Central Florida’s Lake Wales often hiking to the nearby Iron Mountain, a 298-foot hill, where he enjoyed a panoramic vista from one of Florida’s highest elevations. During the evening he cherished his strolls through the tall pines and the Florida sand hill scrub. He particularly enjoyed the peace, tranquility, stunning Florida sunsets and the plethora of birds and wildlife.
Bok was inspired to make the world more beautiful
Guided by his family’s philosophy to “make the world more beautiful”, Bok was inspired to create a magnificent space for serenity, beauty, music and peaceful contemplation.
Bok eventually purchased the property and envisioned a carillon tower surrounded by luscious gardens. Such a place would remind him of the musical sounds of his native Holland while incorporating the natural beauty of his new homeland into a serene and beautiful garden. To realize his dream, he employed Frederick Olmsted, Jr., a landscape architect who transformed the property by creating a subtropical garden in a woodland setting with scenic vistas and calming areas for personal reflection.
Bok Tower reflection pond
Authentic Florida’s Garden of Eden is obvious from the moment you drive through the entrance gate passing acres of orange groves and a nature preserve with hiking trails. To begin your journey, the Bok Tower Gardens Visitor Center provides an excellent overview of the property. Docents are eager to share information, furnish a map and direct you to the theatre for a short background video.
Bok Tower Visitor Center
"What is Blooming" identifies plant names
On your way to the gardens, you’ll see the “What is Blooming” display which has cuttings from flowers you’re likely to notice during your walk – complete with their common and botanical names. Come back for the exhibit hall, the gift shop, garden shop and the restaurant.
The River of Stone and hanging air plants greet visitors
The self-guided tour begins with the River of Stone, a pebble pathway through the center that showcases 30 species of epiphytes, commonly known as air plants because they receive their moisture and nutrients from the air. A display of air plants strung with transparent wire, creates a beautiful “floating” affect.
Bok Tower Caladiums
From here, it’s time to “decompress”, take it “down a notch”. The pathway will lead you through beautiful flora and fauna, and all you have to do is stroll along and take it in. Sit down at the many benches along the way and just relax. You’ll get to the Tower in plenty of time - and the periodic music from the carillon will make your slow pace even more enjoyable.
Gardens are accessible through acres of walkways
Meander along the pathway to the reflection pool that mirrors the tower. It’s surrounded by huge oaks, draping palms and plenty of native plants that add to the authentic Florida ambiance. The tower, the pool and the reflections of the trees and sky make a postcard perfect photograph. Nearby is the Exedra, a shady sitting area, and the location for Bok’s inspiration to develop the property while viewing sunsets. You might also take the time to enjoy the diversity of birds (126 species) found in the garden.
The Bok Tower & Carillon
The centerpiece 205-foot bell tower is composed of pink and gray Georgia marble and Florida coquina rock, and is equipped with 60 bronze bells. Considered one of the finest carillons in the country, the concerts are at 1 and 3 pm daily.
Bok Tower and Reflection Pond
So what is a carillon?
According to the Bok Tower website, a “carillon is a musical instrument consisting of at least 23 cast bronze bells that are precisely tuned and arranged in chromatic progression so that music in any key can be played”. The carillon is played from a keyboard while the bells remain stationary (within a frame) and played as the player depresses the keys, which are connected to clappers by wires.
The Tower is not available for public tours, but its spectacular artistic and detailed design is worth admiring from the outside. You’ll want to circumnavigate the tower and the garden areas to admire the vistas and perhaps find a seat to pause for a moment in the bucolic setting.
Inside the tower are several floors connected by an elevator. Within the building at various levels are antique furnishings, a fireplace, elaborate ceramic tile flooring, a library and archives, recording studio and space dedicated to the bells.
Great Brass Door, The Bok Tower
On the north side is the stunning Great Brass Door that is engraved with a detailed depiction of the Book of Genesis. On the opposite side of the reflecting pool is the sundial or “gnomon” which indicates the time by casting a shadow on the dial face with the hours marked by the 12 signs of the zodiac.
Window by the Pond
View from Window by the Pond
Sacred and chapel-like, this covered setting overlooks a pond filled with wildlife. Enjoy the birds, reptiles, butterflies and more in this natural habitat.
Endangered Plant Garden
This features a display of Florida’s rare flora that is becoming increasingly threatened due to habitat loss.
Courtyard, Pinewood Estate
The 20-room 1930’s Mediterranean style home is open for tours and is a real charmer. Built for Charles Austin Buck, an associate of landscaper Olmsted and a Bethlehem Steel Vice President, the 13,000 square-foot home has all the amenities with barrel-tile roof, carved doors and woodwork and beautifully designed iron work. The architecture, landscape and period furniture make it worthwhile even with the additional entrance fee. Landscape designer, and associate of Olmsted, William Lymar Phillips, creator of the Fairchild Tropical Gardens, developed a stunning tropical oasis and haven for the Bucks.
Pine Ridge Preserve Nature Trail
Pine Ridge Preserve Nature Trail
Long ago when most of Florida was under water, the Lake Wales Ridge (298 feet above sea level) was above water. As a result, many plants and animals became unique to the ridge and can only be found here and nowhere else. The ecosystem of longleaf pine and sand hill plants make this walk a “real Florida” ¾ mile hike.
Flowers bloom year around
Spring is the best time to see the Azaleas, Camellias and Magnolias but there are not really any bad times as the gardens are blooming year around. During the holidays the grounds and home are beautifully appointed with decorations making it a delightful time to visit.
The Bok Tower & Carillon
What clearly sets the Bok Tower Gardens apart from other “real” Florida adventures is that the property is exquisitely maintained, welcoming visitors through its beauty and tranquility. This legendary Central Florida icon will not disappoint and is well worth a day visit.
Tips for your trip: Allow 4 hours for your time at Bok Gardens. If you want to bring your lunch it is a superb place to enjoy a picnic, but the restaurant, the Blue Palmetto Café, also provides meals. There is a kennel for pets on site, as no pets are allowed in the gardens (except on special days).
About the Author: Robin Draper is a Florida native and blogger devoted to the simple and delightful pleasures for Florida living. This article is connected to Robin's Google+ profile.