When it comes to historic attractions, Florida does not have many between the city of St Augustine and the lovely Italianate residence of Vizcaya in Miami, but Bok Tower Gardens in southwest Orlando offers a truly memorable day out. As well as the unique “Singing Tower” with its 60-bell carillon, it offers tours of an estate home and some of the best gardens in Florida.
This surprising and stunningly beautiful National Historic Landmark was constructed by Edward Bok to create a spot of beauty second to none in the country. “Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it” was his mother’s advice to him and he endeavored to live by it. The pink marble edifice with its multicolored tile bellchamber and stunning brass door is beautifully mirrored in the still reflecting pond, made perfect with the two white swans that sail its glassy waters.
The land on which Bok Tower Gardens were created was purchased initially by Edward Bok to preserve it as a bird sanctuary, giving migrating flocks a place to rest, feed and replenish their strength. This high point, deceptively known as Iron Mountain and just 300 feet in elevation, was a favorite spot for him to enjoy evening walks and sunsets from his nearby home. Once he had secured the land he brought in the best craftsmen in the land to create landscaped gardens and his Singing Tower which was designed to house a 60-bell carillon.
The gardens were designed by Fredrick Olmsted Jr, whose father designed New York’s Central Park. The tower was designed by architect Milton Medary, the sculpture was carved in place by Lee Lawrie and the bronze bells were cast by John Taylor Bellfounders in Loughborough England and shipped to Florida. Edward Bok was able to summon the best in the world to create this paradise retreat. The Singing Tower was dedicated upon its completion in 1929 by President Calvin Coolidge, a testament to the social standing and respect given to Edward Bok, a humble immigrant from the Netherlands as a boy.
One of the pleasures of a visit to Bok Tower Gardens is a chance to sit in the peaceful concert area and listen to the moving concert played by Master Carilloneur, William De Turk. From powerful hymns and Bach preludes to film theme tunes and arrangements specially written for carillon, the deep and resonant notes drift through the open chamber and out across the serene gardens.
Few musicians can play the complex carillon, with its many foot pedals and wooden batons which strike melodious bells that weigh anything from 16 pounds to 11 tons. Most of us can only listen and appreciate the gift of music, just part of Bok’s legacy to the nation which has been open to the public for over 80 years.
Strolling around the winding paths of this well-tended 50-acre garden is another pleasure. There is color at every season, but particularly in the spring when the paths are lined with vivid azaleas and delicate camellias, each bloom a perfect rosette of tight petals. Annual and perennial borders blend with exotic gingers and flowering shrubs beneath the shady oaks. Well-trimmed hedges create recesses for life-size brasses of Florida birds, created by the multi-talented President of the gardens, David Price, himself the Head of Horticulture at Bok for over 20 years.
The well-planned wildlife hide, aptly named the Window by the Pond, encourages guests to pause, sit quietly and gaze upon the wetlands area. Their patience may be rewarded with sightings of a blue heron, jays, darting dragonflies, butterflies, gallinules and the colorful plumage of wood ducks.
The Victoria water lily, carefully nurtured from seed by the dedicated and knowledgeable gardeners, displays rimmed leaves large enough to bear the weight of a child. Their generously proportioned blooms open white at dusk and then turn deep pink, adding to the beauty of the tranquil lake setting.
A further treat awaits visitors exploring the westernmost parts of the garden. In the 1970s the adjoining property of Pinewood Estate was purchased and added a beautiful estate home to Bok Gardens. Built for the Buck family, it was a much-loved family residence, filled with European treasures and furnishings with heavy carved wooden doorways and delightful views out to the formal gardens and fountain. Knowledgeable docents capture the story of the house and point out the details in each of the 20 rooms.
Return to the impressive purpose-built Visitor Center along meandering paths, passing lakes, a Japanese lantern, the endangered plant garden and shady greenhouses.
Take time to read the exhibits about Edward Bok’s fascinating life, see the original carillon with its wooden handles and pedals, listen to birdcalls and learn about the geology of this region.
The airy cafeteria provides light lunches, drinks, ice cream and snacks and the tables look out onto the gardens. Sit on the terrace for al fresco dining and drink in the scents of jasmine, tea olives and almond blossom. The well-stocked gift shop has many souvenirs, books, postcards and gift items but a special mention must go to the Plant Shop. The selection of unusual plants, many from Bok Towers Gardens themselves, provide the chance to take a little corner of Bok home with you, whilst helping support this very worthwhile non-profit attraction.
If you have enjoyed reading about Bok Towers Gardens, which is featured in my book of Days Out Around Orlando, you will certainly enjoy reading about 14 other places of interest in the Orlando area. You can look inside the book and buy it from Amazon in both paper and Kindle versions
Pinewood Estate is also featured in my book 20 Best Historic Homes in Florida which is available in both color and B&W and in both formats.
I also was fascinated to read the autobiography of Edward Bok which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. It tells the remarkable story of how this Dutch immigrant became a prolific writer and editor of the Ladies Home Journal magazine and counted President Coolidge as his close friend. I encourage you to read it and share his philosophy to “Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it”. You can look inside the book and order it from Amazon.