Standing like a mythic pinnacle atop Iron Mountain near Lake Wales, Bok Tower—or Singing Tower, as it was once called—is the culmination of a multiyear vision of Edward Bok in the 1920s, and it has been singing since it opened in 1929. “Singing” means the sixty carillon bells that were hoisted upwards through the center of the neo-Gothic/art deco-style tower during its creation and now expertly played by carillonneur Geert D’hollander of Belgium. He is only the fourth carillonneur to be stationed at the tower in its long history. “My Dad was a carillonneur in Belgium and when I was seventeen , we flew here to Lake Wales because he wanted me to see one of the best carillon towers in the world,” he said from his spacious office on the sixth floor of the bell tower. “I fell in love with the place.”
The largest bell is nearly 12 tons and is played with a foot pedal. When struck with the metal clapper inside the bell, attached to the keyboard with wires, it can vibrate for more than two minutes. The other bells—the smallest being 16 pounds—are played by foot pedals and by hitting paddle-like knobs on the keyboard with closed hands. The range of sounds covers nearly five octaves. “The bells never have to be re-tuned,” explained my guide, Marketing Manager Brian Ososky, “but most carillon bells have to be replaced after 250 to 300 years, so that is a problem future managers will have to grapple with.”
What sets Bok Tower apart from other bell towers is its location. Most carillon bells throughout the world are in big cities and on busy college campuses. “When you stop playing, you hear the traffic,” said D’hollander. But at Bok Tower, the bells resonate through a quiet space with only breezes and birds as accompaniment. Visitors are asked to keep quiet when the bells are being played.
“It is nature’s concert hall,” added Ososky.
While D’hollander played his three o’clock concert with the bells, Ososky guided me through the tower’s archival room and library. The library boasts the largest collection of carillon books and music in the world, while the archives hold historic photos, original blueprints, correspondence, early guest books, and other memorabilia from the tower’s long history. Notebooks showcase some of the two thousand different postcards of the attraction that were produced by various companies over the decades.
At different floor levels, Ososky and I stepped out on small balconies to admire sweeping views and the tower’s sculptural elements designed by Lee Lawrie. At ground level, there are twelve interpretive signs of the zodiac in a pink marble sundial. At 30 feet, carved marble pelicans, herons, fish, and scenes from Aesop’s Fables reach towards the sky. At 130 feet, the sides are adorned with more majestic birds along with jellyfish, seahorses, and other sea creatures. Swans, fox, storks, tortoises, hares, and baboons can be seen as well. At 150 feet, the square base changes to an octagon where four marble finials of eagles survey the scene below. Massive tile grilles by J.H. Dulles Allen depict doves carrying laurel and oak branches as symbols of strength, peace, and goodwill.
Eight marble herons 14 feet tall grace the top of the tower, a welcome change from the gargoyles of Gothic tradition. Reinforcing and decorating the steel frame, the primary building materials used were salmon-colored coquina rock from St. Augustine and gray and pink marble from north Georgia, making for an aesthetically pleasing combination. The entire tower is surrounded by a 15-foot moat filled with koi fish.
What could easily have taken a decade or more to construct took only two years under the guidance of designer and builder Milton Medary. “In a single, simple unit, [the tower] must sing of music, sculpture, color, architecture, landscape design and the arts of the workers in brass and iron, ceramics, marble and stone—each part of a chorus, each adding beauty to the others,” said Medary about his work. The architectural feat has been called America’s Taj Mahal.
We descended to the bottom level, what is known as the Founder’s Room. This was once reserved for Bok’s family and contains original furniture and family heirlooms. A multicolored tile floor created by J.H. Dulles Allen is a mandala of animals, sea creatures, and natural elements. If Henry David Thoreau had ever wanted to build a monument to nature’s beauty, the Singing Tower would be it.
As D’hollander finished his concert near the top of the tower, we approached the giant teak door to the outside, one adorned with thirty handcrafted brass panels depicting the biblical story of creation. It was created by famous metalworker Samuel Yellin, who also designed the decorative iron gates on the north side of the tower. When we pulled it open and stepped into the light, appreciative visitors applauded as they thought one of us was the carillonneur. “No, no, it’s not us,” Ososky said. “The carillonneur, Geert D’hollander, is coming out in a minute to answer any of your questions.” Then, he whispered to me, smiling, “I’ve never had that happen before.” Despite the mistaken identity, it was a warm feeling.
Bok remembered carillon bells in his native Netherlands as a boy and wanted to present the tower and surrounding 55-acre botanical garden as a gift to the American people to show his appreciation for the opportunities the country and people had given him. After all, he had become a successful journalist and editor of the Ladies Home Journal, the most popular magazine of the time. He made millions as a mover and shaker in the publishing industry.
To begin his project, Bok hired Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the famous New York Central Park creator, to lay out the gardens in 1921. He directed Olmsted to transform the sand hill into “a spot of beauty second to none in the country.” Trenches were dug for irrigation pipes and thousands of loads of rich soil were brought in. The planting began in 1923 and continued for five years. The grand total was astounding—10,000 azaleas, 1,000 live oaks, 100 sabal palms, 300 magnolias, and a host of other species. Special emphasis was placed on growing native and nonnative food plants for migratory birds. Paths were purposely placed without signage so that visitors could intuitively guide themselves to the highest points on the property to behold a vista—unusual for Florida—or to view the tower and reflection pool. The grounds were believed to be sacred by Native Americans, a high point used for worship. For this reason, four Seminole chiefs visited in 1930 and a group of Seminoles returned each spring for several years to set up camp and showcase their culture.
President Calvin Coolidge presided over the garden and tower’s dedication in 1929 with 60,000 to 70,000 people in attendance. Bok died a year later, but his vision and guiding principles endure. “Make you the world a bit better and more beautiful because you have lived in it,” Bok’s grandmother once told him, and this principle remains part of the attraction’s mission statement.
“Bok would be very happy that his idea has survived the test of time—the economy, hurricanes, and most of all, the modern culture,” said foundation president David Price. “There was a big push in Florida to monetize attractions and this is something Bok did not want to do. He did not want to have politics, commercialism or theology overtake it.”
While the Bok Tower image ended up on postcards, plates, salt and pepper shakers, and even a 1941 Kellogg’s Rice Krispies box, the attraction’s managers have sought to be true to the site’s mission of being a sanctuary. Soon after Bok’s son Curtis took over as manager in 1956, he was approached by Billy Graham to do a crusade at the attraction, but he refused. “It’s a spiritual place, not a religious place,” Price explained. “Edward Bok wanted to do something for world peace and to create a peaceful place where man and animals were in harmony and people could think freely. He is still as relevant today and he was then. People need a place for respite and rejuvenation.”
Despite its lack of commercialism, the Bok Tower and Gardens became a focal point for Florida tourism in the 1940s and ‘50s with more than 600,000 visitors a year. The tourism magnet helped to spawn a nearby attraction, the Great Masterpiece, a 300,000-piece mosaic rendering of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper that was once hidden from Nazis in a European basement. By the 1960s and ‘70s, the mosaic was surrounded by a western fort, glass blowers, gardens, miniature golf course, animal shows, alligator pool, a train ride, and a treetop cable car. The name was changed to Masterpiece Gardens, and together with Bok Tower and Cypress Gardens along the popular Orange Blossom Trail, U.S. Highway 27, the attractions were labeled “The Big Three” of central Florida. But Masterpiece Gardens didn’t survive the Disney-inspired tourism shift to Orlando while Bok Tower endured. The property is now used for retreats and church camps and the mosaic is currently housed at Bob Jones University, a religious college in South Carolina.
Today, visitation at Bok Tower Gardens stands around 125,000 a year, but it has been steadily rising. The attraction has endured tough times because Bok had the foresight to create an endowment that has grown steadily, hovering around $40 million. Only a small portion is used each year.
A rising star in landscape architecture, Nelson Byrd Woltz, was hired to plan this new phase in Bok Tower Gardens’ evolution. “One of the most exciting things about Bok Tower is its ability to reach people emotionally,” Woltz said in the attraction’s glossy newsletter, The Garden Path. “The idea of sanctuary, of beauty, of people immersed in nature presents a tremendous opportunity to capture their imagination and emotions. And that’s a very important moment when you have someone’s emotional attention because you can start to tell other stories. As people come to know more about this place, Bok Tower Gardens can help build a new generation of environmental stewards.”
As part of that effort, the attraction helps to rescue rare native plants that are impacted by development or road projects. Plants, seeds, and cuttings are brought back to the gardens to be potted and eventually reintroduced to areas undergoing restoration. They are also curating a national collection of rare native plants, boasting sixty-four different species and counting. This serves as a buffer against extinction.
“Some people call us the area’s best kept secret,” said Ososky. “Even some residents of Lake Wales don’t know what that tower on the hill is, but we’re trying to get the word out. We want to do more with young families. They will be the gardens’ future members.”