Florida Places that Matter is a series featuring historic places around Florida that matter to you. If you would like to be a part of the series, share a historic resource that makes our state extraordinary.
My first visit to Bok Tower Gardens was in the spring of 2013. I am almost embarrassed to admit this as I have lived in Florida within driving distance for 50 years and had never been.
It was the idea of a quick weekend getaway for my husband’s birthday, that included a stay in the delightful Chalet Susanne and an opportunity to explore Bok Tower Gardens, that introduced us to what I like to call old Florida’s true magic kingdom.
We entered the front gate of the gardens into a courtyard that had so many interesting and beautiful air plants and bromeliads in bloom one could get lost there among the exotic beauty and the reflection pool, then find sustenance in the café and all kinds of Florida treats in the gift shop.
From the courtyard we wandered into 130 acres of paradise with several paths to choose from, each one offering a variety of Florida flora and fauna. We discovered a reflection pond that was home to swans. There was Spanish moss in what felt like a forest of old oaks, and there were plants and flowers native to Florida in a riot of colors and design. Following any one of the paths will lead to the summit of one of the highest points in Florida and reveal a view of orange groves and open land that takes one back to how Florida must have looked when Edward Bok had his vision for this beautiful place back in the early 1920s.
Bok arrived on American soil in 1869 at the age of six. He was born in Den Helder, Netherlands, and integrated himself into the language culture and traditions of his new country brought with it a desire to live up to a lesson his grandmother gave him: “Make your world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.”
To that end Bok became a successful publisher, Pulitzer Prize winning author, an advocate for world peace and for the environment.
He brought his family to Lake Wales, Florida, during the winter months and fell in love with the peace
that he found in the wildness of Florida. This time planted the seed of an idea that became Bok Tower Gardens with Bok's vision: “Here all living things are respected, all people are welcome.”
To help him realize his vision, Bok selected craftsmen and artisans that were renown in their fields both in America and in Europe:
Landscape architect: Fredrick Law Olmstead Jr
Architect: Milton Meday
Tile Maker: JK Dulles Allen
Sculptor: Lee O Lawrie
Metal Work: Samuel Yellin
Together they constructed a singing tower with an art deco feel and Gothic Revival style. The tower artfully depicts Florida birds and plants and other wildlife, along with Adam and Eve and the serpent and a sun dial.
The tower houses a 60-bell carillon presided over by Bok Tower’s fourth full-time carillonneur, Geert D’Hollander, who has studied, performed, taught, arranged and composed carillon music for more than 35 years in the United States and in Europe.
In February of 1929, Edward Bok gave the extraordinary gift of Bok Tower Gardens, the breathtaking array of plants, flowers, wildlife, the music of the carillon, the peace and quiet and serenity to the American people as a token of his appreciation for the opportunities he had been given.
Every time I visit Bok Tower I relate completely to the words of American Naturalist, John Burroughs, who wrote, “I come here to find myself. It is so easy to get lost in the world.”
Bok Tower Gardens will reopen on June 1, after being closed to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitors will need to reserve their space online prior to arrival. Until then, you can explore Bok at home.
Story submitted by Susan Miller of Port Charlotte, Florida.