UPDATED ON March 1, 2019) Bok Tower Gardens is one of Florida’s lesser-known gems. It is located off of US Route 60 about halfway across the state in Central Florida’s historic Lake Wales. If you didn’t know it was there, it is doubtful you would ever suspect that a modern museum with a world famous bell tower surrounded by stunning gardens would be minutes from the main road. Better late than never.
Bok Tower Gardens is a well-designed museum for Edward W. Bok, a very successful publisher, humanitarian, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. He contracted famous landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. to change the sandy property into “a spot of beauty second to none in the country.” And that he did.
The gardens feature beautiful flowers and trees, a singing tower, an estate, café, and upscale gift shop. US President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed Bok Tower Gardens a National Historic Landmark in 1929. If you have not toured Bok Tower Gardens, or if you need a refresher visit, the Concert Under the Stars event would be a great time to visit or the Friday before Mother’s Day, when National Public Gardens Day allows free admission.
The Star of the Gardens
The star at Bok Tower Gardens is the 205-foot Singing Tower which houses the 60-bell carillon. Daily bell concerts are at 1 and 3 PM. If you are unfamiliar with the term carillon, it is similar to an organ, but the keys move bells in a tower.
A gorgeous reflection pool lies in front of the Tower and the bright sunshine reflection is just mesmerizing. Great photos are easy with this kind of natural beauty.
Outside of the tower is a concert viewing area to see the carillon players during the live performances. From there, people sit and listen to the carillons throughout the day. The 30-minute concerts are both live and prerecorded, but Bok Tower is one of only a handful of carillon towers in the world that house a live performer.
My Private Tour
The director of Bok Tower (Brian) hosted a friend and me for a private tour of Bok Tower’s landscaped gardens. A display at the front gate shows and tells about what flowers are in bloom at this time of year.
As we walked the property, Brian pointed out specific details and things about the gardens. We arrived at the singing tower and Brian took a key out of his pocket to let us inside the locked gate. I was nearly jumping up and down with excitement!
We crossed a photogenic bridge and walked up to the stunning Great Brass Door. Brian shared some history of the carillons and the tower building while we snapped up some pictures. I was so excited to be on the “inside” of the locked gates, strutting my stuff, but when he opened yet another locked door to go inside, I was utterly in shock. As we stepped through the door adorned with 30 brass panels depicting the biblical theory of creation, I felt like royalty.
Inside the Singing Tower
The interior (Founder’s Room) of Bok Tower, is fashioned from pink marble. It is lovely. We toured the media and archives room, which contains the largest carillon library in the world.
In the “penthouse” of the tower lies the talent behind making those carillon bells sing. The director at Bok Tower is world famous carillonneur Geert D’Hollander, who studied at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp. Geert has achieved countless awards often works with new carillon players and during our visit, none other than Joey Brink was onsite.
Joey is not only a robotics engineer who graduated from Yale but was the first North American to win first prize in the carillon competition in Mechelen, Belgium. Joey was kind and talented. He played a brief “As Time Goes By” for us. Joey can also play music by current artists such as Lady Gaga, which sounds cool on those enormous bells.
An Intricately Designed Tower and Gardens
From the outside of the art-deco tower, you can make out the animal carvings, mosaics, and see intricate ironwork carved in the column. The views from the balconies are stunning, overlooking the entire Lake Wales area and many orange groves.
Stories about the construction of the Bok Tower Gardens is condensed in a short film in the Visitor Center & Museum when you first arrive. I recommend seeing it and found the movie helpful to understand the intricacies of the site. Bok Tower’s museum also houses top-notch displays and showcases historical items.
The 50-acres of Bok Tower Gardens is a maze of paths with beautiful groups of flowers and oak and palm trees. It was designed by famous architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. There are specific areas at Bok Tower laid out for endangered plants, live oaks, and a nature trail. The Window By The Pond is a small observatory for watching reptiles, birds, and butterflies.
If you love flowers, look for the camellias, saucer magnolias, jasmine, and giant tropical sage, my favorites. Welcoming benches are tucked away in many nooks throughout the gardens for meditating or just admiring the scenery.
Tour a Mediterranean Home Option
For an additional fee, you may visit Pinewood Estate & Gardens, a lovely 1930’s home that was purchased by Bok Tower in 1970. Pinewood Estate is a reminder of one of the most beautiful specimens of Mediterranean architecture in the South.
A guide leads the tour of the house narrating its history and pointing out interesting facts about the antiques, ornate tiles, and custom carved wooden doors. I enjoyed seeing the purple bathroom fixtures in Lucy’s bedroom; they reminded me of my grandmother’s house.
The Pinewood Estate takes on a new look during the holiday season. I recently met some friends there to see it all dressed up in its Christmas decorations and flowers. I highly recommend coming to visit during both times of the year.
Plan to eat your lunch onsite at Bok Tower at their Blue Palmetto Café. The cafe serves soups, salads, sandwiches, and wraps, as well as delicious sweet tea. I chose the Tropical Salad, piled high with turkey, apple wedges, pecans, strawberries, Mandarin orange segments, and gorgonzola cheese. Yum! Blue Palmetto also serves beer and wine.
Later you can browse for gifts, postcards, plants, and books in the upscale Shop at Bok.
A Peaceful Way to Spend the Day
My friend and I both found Bok Tower to be a peaceful place with a welcoming feel. I plan to take my parents when they visit Florida as well as partake in some of their special events offered throughout the year. Bok Tower welcomes school field trips, weddings and receptions, group tours, and are always accepting volunteers.
If you are touring Bok Tower Gardens with children, see the Visitor Center for a discovery backpack which can be borrowed to explore the gardens from a kid’s point of interest. Great news, the tower, and gardens are open 365 days a year!
Once you have seen for yourself, you will understand why Bok Tower Gardens is often referred to as “America’s Taj Mahal”.
Bok Tower Gardens Photo Gallery:
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