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Gardens & Edens - Bok Tower Gardens

Bok Tower Gardens
1151 Tower Boulevard, Lake Wales 33853
(863) 676-1408

Admission:Adults $10, children (5 to 12) $3
Hours: Daily 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (last admission at 5:00 p.m.)
Location: Off Burns Avenue in Lake Wales. Take US 27 South to Mountain Lake Cutoff and follow the signs

Once upon a time, before the age of Leona Helmsley and Donald Trump, the wealthy knew how to spend their money. One such individual was Edward W. Bok, a Dutch immigrant born in 1863 who came to the United States at the age of six and made his fortune as a writer and magazine publisher. In the twenties, after his retirement, he set out to create an Eden on an unprepossessing patch of land whose only claim to fame was that it was reputedly the highest point on the Florida peninsula. He enlisted Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. (son of the creator of New York’s Central Park and a major landscape architect in his own right) to do the landscaping and hired noted architect Milton B. Medary to build a setting for a very special musical instrument. In 1929, he presented the result as a gift to the American people. The “result” is the Bok Tower and its magnificent carillon that stands majestically in the midst of an artfully designed wooded park, specifically conceived as a refuge from the bustle of “the world.”

Bok Tower Gardens, now a National Historic Landmark, is a very special and a very quiet experience. Unlike nearby Cypress Gardens, where the landscaping is over-the-top and in-your-face, the effect here is far more subtle, almost ethereal. The bark-chip covered paths through the woods are meant for leisurely strolls and quiet moments alone with one’s thoughts. The vistas, powerful as they are, are contemplative and softly romantic.

Olmstead’s design is devilishly clever in the way he leads you to the tower. He only lets you see it when he wants you to. Your first glimpse is across a reflecting pool, framed by palm fronds and Spanish moss. Then it vanishes as you walk through a palm-fringed glade to approach more closely. Suddenly, the tower rises above you, standing on an island barely larger than its base, surrounded by a moat crossed by marble bridges and guarded by massive wrought iron gates. It’s as if you have come upon a magical remnant of an ancient city in a storybook land, part cathedral, part castle keep.

The storybook aspect is heightened by the pink and gray Georgia marble that forms the tower’s base and accents its flanks, the odd and complex sundial mounted on the side of the south wall, the highly polished brass door on the north, the mysterious red door behind the ornately carved balustrade above the sundial, by the very fact that you cannot cross the moat for a closer look. It must be a wondrous experience on a foggy morning.

The tower was never intended to welcome guests; the only way to get a look inside is to see the orientation film screened at the Visitors Center on a regular schedule. The tower exists solely to house the 60 precisely tuned bronze bells operated by a massive keyboard played with the fists. The carillon occupies the upper third of the structure. The unique sound produced by this massive instrument rolls out across the surrounding woods through 35-foot high grilles in the form of Art Deco mosaics of drooping trees and animals in colorful shades of turquoise and purple.

Every afternoon at 1:00 and 3:00 there is a 45-minute carillon recital. Many of the pieces played were composed specifically for carillon, others have been adapted to the unique requirements of the massive instrument. A schedule of “Daily Carillon Music” lists the day’s program, everything from old folk tunes to opera. It’s a wonderful experience on a warm, sunny day and, unless you’re a carillon connoisseur, probably unlike any other concert you’ve ever heard. When the performance is live (rather than recorded), a video monitor mounted in what appears to be a small green shelter lets you watch the carillonneur play.

Tip: Most people sit on the grass or on benches under the shady oak trees near the tower’s base during the recitals. You will have a better musical experience if you move somewhat farther away. Stroll down the slope away from the tower until the tower’s mosaic grilles reappear over the tops of the oak trees. Then find a spot with an unobstructed view of the top of the tower. This way, the music will roll over the tree tops and cascade down the slope towards you.

Don’t leave without exploring the rest of the grounds. Past the reflecting pool that marked your approach to the tower lies an “exedra,” a semicircular marble bench that looks out from the top of Iron Mountain to the west. At the northern edge of the grounds is a more recent, and ingenious, addition, the Window By The Pond Nature Observatory. It’s a small wooden building on the lip of a pond. You sit behind a large picture window, unseen by the wildlife outside. A sign notes that this is nature’s show and that the performance schedule is erratic. On the back wall are drawings of the local animals you might glimpse from your hiding place.

From here you can take a one-mile hike through the Pine Ridge Preserve, one of the few remaining fragments of the sort of longleaf pine forest that once covered millions of acres of the southeastern United States. Preserving this patch of woods is not as easy as it may sound. A carefully orchestrated series of controlled burns is used to mimic ageless natural processes. Otherwise, evergreen oaks would invade the habitat and eventually kill the pines with their shady branches. An informative brochure that explicates the habitat can be found at the trailhead.

The Visitors Center houses a modest but finely executed exhibit that provides background on Bok, the tower, and the carillon it houses. The cafeteria-style Carillon Cafe serves simple sandwich platters and hot dogs. There is also a tasteful gift shop where you can get cassettes and CDs of Bok Tower carillon recitals. It carries a good selection of books about gardening, wildlife, conservation, and Florida’s natural wonders. Framed photos and posters of the gardens make nice souvenirs.

In 1970, the Bok Tower Gardens Foundation acquired the nearby Pinewood Estate, formerly known as “El Retiro,” a palatial summer home built for a steel mogul. Although it dates to only 1929, it has the look of a much older Mediterranean villa and has been meticulously restored inside. Both the house and the grounds were designed by architects associated with the Olmstead firm. You can tour the house by appointment.

There are daily tours November to April; the rest of the year, tours are offered only Wednesday through Sunday. Tours are limited to 16 guests. The price is $6 for adults, $3 for children 5 to 12. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, the house is decorated for the holidays and is open without reservations. To check the tour schedule (always a good idea) and make reservations, call (863) 676-1408.

The Sanctuary is accessible to the physically challenged. It offers complimentary wheelchairs and strollers and mobility vehicles for a fee.

Nearby: Cypress Gardens, Florida Skydiving Center, Lake Wales Arts Center, Spook Hill.

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