Long before Interstate 4 sliced through a swath of Florida, and Disney theme parks put Kissimmee on the map, there was an attraction in Lake Wales that beckoned to visitors to partake of its beauty.
Bok Tower Gardens, deemed one of America’s finest gardens, offers visitors the chance to step away from the world’s cares and savor the handiwork of nature.
The National Historic Landmark is worth a visit for people who enjoy music, architecture, history, wildlife, plants and flowers.
This is a place that offers a feeling of serenity, as you walk along the mulched paths that meander through spacious grounds of oaks, palms, azaleas, irises and camellias.
The garden was a gift to the American people from Edward W. Bok, a Dutch immigrant who became editor of The Ladies Home Journal and won a Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography.
“He wanted to make a place where people could just relax and get away from the grind of the world,” said David Price, president of Bok Tower Gardens. “Bok wanted a quiet place where people could come and sit and enjoy the sounds of birds and kind of find themselves.”
An estimated 75,000 people attended the formal dedication on Feb. 1, 1929, where President Calvin Coolidge delivered an address. The National Broadcasting Company, which would later become known as NBC, provided national coverage through a hookup with a Gainesville radio station.
Before Bok decided to transform the spot into a place of beauty, not everyone was sold on his vision.
“There were a lot of naysayers who said you couldn’t plant on a sand hill and it would be hard to keep things alive,” Price said.
But Bok commissioned famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., to design the garden. After Olmsted’s work was well on its way, Bok revealed his plans for a carillon tower, inspired by the carillon towers of his childhood in the Netherlands.
He hired Milton B. Medary of Philadelphia to design the 205-foot tower that became the architectural centerpiece of the garden.
Constructed of pink and gray marble and tan coquina stone, the tower houses 60 bells, ranging in weight from 16 pounds to 12 tons. A carillonneur plays the bells by striking wooden keys that tug on a wire that activates the clapper of the corresponding bells.
“The tower complements the serenity of the garden,” Price said. “It’s a neo-gothic style. It has almost sort of a spiritual quality.”
Nearly 150,000 visitors drop by Bok Tower Gardens each year, with about 60 percent of those guests traveling more than 50 miles to get there, Price said.
Some visitors sign a guest book in a small building called Window by the Pond, where they can sit to gaze through a picture window to observe wildlife. The visitors come from diverse places, but seem to share a common appreciation of the Lake Wales gem.
“Came here for an hour, will spend the day here,” jotted a visitor from California.
“Best day in Florida,” scribbled a New Yorker.
“Beautiful, tranquil, spiritual,” wrote a visitor from Rhode Island.
“Peaceful, lovely and a real treat to visit,” opined a New Mexico guest.
Attendance fluctuates throughout the year, with January through April drawing the biggest crowds.
No matter when visitors drop in, though, there’s plenty to see.
“We plan for year-round color and interest,” Price said.
The camellias, for instance, bloom in fall and winter, while azaleas blossom in spring. A table outside the visitor center displays a collection of vases holding cuttings to let guests know what’s in bloom.
There’s an interesting display inside the visitor center detailing Bok’s life, there’s a film that tells the attraction’s story, and there are numerous displays about the garden, area wildlife and the carillon.
Pinewood Estate, a 20-room Mediterranean-style mansion, also is open for self-guided tours for an additional charge.
From its beginning, Bok Tower Gardens has sought to be someplace special. Besides bringing in Olmsted and Medary, Bok also hired Lee Lawrie of New York, Samuel Yellin of Philadelphia, and J.H. Dulles-Allen of the Enfield Pottery and Tile Works in Pennsylvania to work on the project.
Lawrie designed sculptures to be executed in marble. Yellin made wrought-iron pieces for the tower’s interior and bridge. He also created a series of panels on the tower’s massive brass door, recounting the biblical story of creation.
Dulles-Allen did the tile work on eight grilles enclosing the bell chamber.
While enjoying its rich history, Bok Tower Gardens is mindful of a need to remain relevant during changing times, Price said. Along those lines, it has completed a 20-year master plan, and will begin work on the first phase this summer. Initial changes will include additional gardens, work to restore a sand hill and new surfacing on key paths to make it easier to get around.
Some things, however, will not change.
When Bok Tower Gardens opened, Price said, “peace and tranquility was our theme.”
Some things, it seems, never go out style.
If you go
WHERE: Bok Tower Gardens, 1151 Tower Blvd., in Lake Wales
WHEN: 365 days a year from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Daily carillon concerts are presented at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.
COST: Admission to the garden is $12 for adults and $3 for children. Combo tickets, which include self-guided tours of Pinewood Estate, is $18 for adults and $8 for children
Published May 21, 2014