If sea levels were to rise to the point where the coastline of Florida was submerged, our peninsular state would become a series of islands. At the heart of one of those islands, a neo-Gothic tower of coquina and marble would rise 205 feet into the sky.
Bok Tower Gardens near Lake Wales is on one of the highest points in the state, 298 feet above sea level.
President Calvin Coolidge presided over the dedication of the Singing Tower and its adjacent bird sanctuary and gardens on February 1, 1929. The facility was conceived and built by Edward Bok as a gift to the American people for the opportunities he had been given.
Bok was born in 1863 in Dans Helder, Netherlands. He immigrated to the United States with his family in 1870. He grew from a boy who didn’t speak English to become a confidant of American presidents and a friend to literary figures such as Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. He made a fortune in publishing.
“At 26 years old, he became editor-in-chief of The Ladies’ Home Journal magazine, which became the first magazine in the world to have over a million subscribers,” says Brian Ososky, a director at Bok Tower Gardens.
Bok would come from Pennsylvania to spend his winters near Lake Wales. He enjoyed watching sunsets from Iron Mountain and decided to stop plans to build a housing development there by purchasing the land. He hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. to transform a sand hill into a lush and thriving garden sanctuary.
Olmsted worked with his father, who designed New York’s Central Park. He landscaped many of the most prominent landmarks in Washington D.C., and served as the first director of the National Park Service.
It took Olmsted six years to create the Bok Tower Gardens, bringing in rich soil, developing an elaborate irrigation system, and planting acres of carefully selected trees, plants, and flowers. The pathways through the gardens all led to the Singing Tower.
“The pathways were all specifically meant to be meandering, and you would slowly go around corners in anticipation of what you would see next,” says Ososky. “All the while you might catch a glimpse of the tower and then it would disappear behind some oaks or behind some other types of trees.”
When the tower comes into full view, it is a spectacular sight.
The tower is a combination of Gothic and Art Deco influences, made of coquina stone from St. Augustine and pink and gray marble from Georgia. It was designed by architect Milton B. Medary, who also created the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and the Justice Department Building in Washington, D.C.
Carved into the tower is a unique combination of sacred, secular, and distinctly Floridian images. The bird, animal, and floral depictions were created by sculptor Lee Lawrie, best known for his “Atlas” statue at Rockefeller Center in New York.
Metal worker Samuel Yellin crafted the large brass doors on the north side of the tower that depict the story of creation, as well as the wrought iron gates leading to the doors. On the south side of the tower, Yellin contributed to the sundial that features a bronze snake amid the signs of the Zodiac and Roman numerals that display the time of day. Yellin’s work can be seen on college campuses including Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, and on numerous churches including the Washington National Cathedral.
Tilemaker J.H. Dulles Allen created the elaborate floor of the tower, and added color to the top third of the structure.
Walking through the gardens, a visitor might hear the tower before they see it.
The Singing Tower houses one of only 600 carillons in the world. It has 60 bronze bells, the largest of which weighs about 12 tons. A keyboard instrument at the top of the tower is attached to clappers which strike the bells, creating music.
“This tower and this sanctuary is unique,” says carillonneur Geert D’hollander. “The gardens are like a natural concert hall. No traffic. Beautiful, peaceful, serene.”
Bok’s grandmother advised him to “make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.”
He followed that advice.