In a sea of active theme parks, Bok Tower Gardens is a quiet oasis.

LAKE WALES – Having the designation of being the best at something – or, in this case, the tallest in your field – can be great for business if that reputation draws people to your site.

But even Cassie Jacoby is the first to admit it isn’t quite true.

“It’s not the highest, but it’s close,” Jacoby said. “But I hope people don’t come just for that.” 

In Central Florida, tourism is king, and the leading theme parks like Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World are constantly looking for something new to draw in visitors. At the same time, new theme parks are still getting built here – the Wizardening World of Harry Potter opened to long lines last June, and Legoland Florida opens in Winter Haven next fall.

Bok Tower Gardens, though, is happy to stay just as it is. Billed more for its quiet solitude than for thrill rides, Bok Towers is for those who enjoy getting back to nature.

“You can actually come here and pick a piece of fruit and eat it,” said Jacoby, Bok Towers’ director of communications. “We let it fall naturally for the animals. Our president says as long as you don’t back up a truck and fill it, it’s okay.”

A National Historic Landmark that was voted Florida’s Best Garden by readers of Florida Monthly magazine, Bok Towers Garden is at 1151 Tower Boulevard in Lake Wales. It offers nature walks, landscaped gardens, history, music concerts, special events … and the Singing Tower Carillon. Philadelphia architect Milton B. Medary designed the original 205-foot carillon tower, which holds inside it bells ranging in weight from 16 pounds to nearly 12 tons. Brief recorded carillon music fills the gardens every 30 minutes, and there are daily concerts at 1 and 3 p.m.

It is, as Jacoby noted, a quiet oasis in a region that’s seen its share of rapid development in the past decade, where so many miles of citrus groves got plowed over to make room for new residential or commercial subdivisions.

There was so much development going on during the building boom between 2004 and 2006 that the region even got a nickname: Orlampa, suggesting that the area between Orlando and Tampa had virtually merged into being one large suburb.

At Bok Towers, though, the view from 205 feet up is spectacular – and hardly looks like an urban building in the midst of a bustling city. The tower is surrounded by acres of ferns, palms, oaks and pines – flowering foliage rather than newly built subdivisions.

“People are so surprised – especially the Brits who come to Four Corners – that we have rolling hills with citrus groves,” Jacoby said. 

Cassie Jacoby, the director of communications at Bok Tower Gardens, says local residents are surprised at how tranquil the location is.

Started in 1927 and dedicated on Feb. 1, 1929, the Singing Tower was crafted from natural materials of Georgia marble, Florida coquina stone and brick.

You can become a member of the Bok Tower Club, which includes six additional guest visits per year, and private guided Tower tours for up to six people. But it’s not inexpensive: it costs $1,000 per person.

Bok Towers Garden continues to host special events that are much more affordable. In October, it was the Boktoberfest Plant Sale featuring German food, craft beers, tree climbing and a Pumpkin Patch for kids. On Nov. 6, it was the 9th annual Sunset & Symphony Concert with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. This month, it’s the Christmas at Pinewood Holiday Home Tour, where designers have decked the halls of the 20-room, 1930s Pinewood Estate with holiday decorations.  

Bok Tower Gardens celebrate the holiday season with this Nativity scene at the Visitor's Center.

“It’s not your grandmother’s Bok Tower anymore,” Jacoby said. “We had 8,200 people here for the Boktoberfest plant sale. It was an opportunity for people to be able to enjoy the towers from a different perspective.”

The Singing Tower has been a part of a lengthy restoration project. Although built to weather all the elements, rust has corroded the steel structure that supports the massive colored tile grilles surrounding the carillon. The eight cast iron grilles are 35 feet tall, ten feet wide and about six inches thick. Work on two of the eight grille panels on the northeast and east sides is part of a pilot restoration project that’s going to help determine how the work on the other six grilles will be handled in future years.

Despite that, “It still looks brand new,” Jacoby said.

The tower was the brainchild of Edward W. Bok, editor of the Ladies Home Journal, who grew up in the Netherlands and was charmed by the majesty of old world carillons in Europe and decided a similar Singing Tower would be perfect for the gardens. The view from the top is incredible, and looks like you’re surrounded by paradise — and are so high up that you could almost reach out and touch Heaven.

That’s appropriate, because the repousee panels on the entrance Door contain the story of Genesis.

“This has the Biblical story of Creation on it,” Jacoby said. “It’s 1,000 pounds. Mr. Bok wanted it to be for all religions, and not any particular one.” 

The brass door of the Singing Tower is surrounded by peace and serenity.

Panels one through six show the Creation of Heaven and Earth — “The Earth without form and void. The cloud is used here as the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters. Dividing the light from the Darkness. The could is used as the symbol of Jehovah.”

Other panels show the Separation of Land and Water, Creation of Trees and Fruit, Creation of Light, Creation of Birds and Fishes, Creation of Animals, and finally, in palnels 27 through 30, the story of the Garden of Eden.

The tower also even includes a plaque dedicated to Bok’s favorite saying, the one he lived by.

“ ‘Make the world a better place’ – that’s our motto here,” Jacoby said.

Inside, the property is a marvel to behold.

“It’s really kept very private for our members,” Jacoby said. “It’s neo-Gothic and Art Deco. I don’t know if there’s another building with that. There’s only four in Florida like it, and we’re considered the greatest in the world.”

The carillon is on Level Seven, the highest, with the carillonneur’s studio one level below it and the Anton Brees Carillon Library on Level Five.

“We have an archive, also,” Jacoby said. “Carillon students come and study here.”

Bok Towers is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and admission is $10 for adults and $3 for ages 5-12.

Members of Bok Tower gardens and children under 5 are admitted free.

“We’re just still the best kept secret,” Jacoby said. “We’re off the beaten path, but well worth the trip.”  

To learn more, call 863-676-1408 or log on to

Panic in the Steam Room

There are a lot of Christian churches in Central Florida. But are they all open to different viewpoints and lifestyles?

I’m not prone to panic attacks.
The last few times I’ve gotten panic attacks, it was for a remarkably good reason. Example: I was on the highway, and something was going terribly wrong.
The first time, I was in the center lane of Interstate 4 in Central Florida, and my car instantly died. Just like that, gone. There was a truck to my right, but mercifully it sailed past me and I was able to steer my car into the right lane, then the breakdown lane, without incident. My car was indeed dead. And as I sat there, trying desperately to start it, my heart was pounding furiously, and sweat had soaked my brow. But the crisis was over.
The second panic attack happened on U.S. 17/92 in Orlando. I was heading south in the right hand lane, and traffic was slow, so I moved to get into the center lane. As I did a woman in the left lane suddenly came charging toward me.  We came very close to colliding, but I managed to quickly cut back into the right as she zoomed off. Again, nothing happened, but in those few seconds, I panicked.
I consider those pretty normal reactions to a potentially dangerous, even life threatening situation. It’s like being on a plane when it suddenly hits turbulence. We all get jittery, even panic a bit, when the turbulence lasts more than a few minutes. You’d either have to be the calmest cookie in the world, or in a coma, to avoid that kind of reaction.
No, for me, true, genuine panic attacks are different — and rare. They happen when you panic in a situation where, under normal circumstances, you never would; where there’s positively no reason to get scared.
But I did. And it happened in the weirdest place.
I was at the local YMCA, where I exercise every morning. I was in the locker room, wearing just a towel, and I walked into the steam room, for the first time. I sat down, in the sweltering heat … and then it happened.
A big burst of steam came pouring through the vents, blinding me. It blanketed the entire room. And in those few seconds , I had my first non-rational panic attack in a long time.
I jumped up and got out of there as quickly as I could. And I haven’t gone back in there since.
It wasn’t the heat that did it. I enjoy the hot, dry heat in the sauna quite a bit, and go in there daily without feeling the least bit uneasy. No, it was the steam room that got me worked up. And I know this sounds crazy, but I felt like I was locked in a gas chamber.
You’re right, that does sound crazy.
I was born in the early 1960s, two decades late for the Nazi gas chambers; and although I visited Poland two years ago, I never made it to Auschwitz, although there are daily tours that go there from Krakow. So I couldn’t even say I’ve been to a gas chamber and have a visual sense of what one looks like. 

The Holocaust Memorial and Resource Center in Maitland has exhibits that record the Nazi brutality against the Jews.

But for reasons I can’t even fathom, as I sat there in the steam room and as all that blinding steam poured from the vents, I truly felt scared — like I wouldn’t be able to get out of there, and that steam was going to suffocate me.
I have no idea why.
Maybe it was spurred in part by a subconscious empathy for a group that did experience this Holocaust. I don’t know. Maybe a sense of reincarnation?
When I was growing up — not to change the subject, but …. — I was raised in a non-religious family. Historically Protestant, my parents had no interest in religion and never taught me to pray or brought me to church.
For those conservative “values voters” out there who consider this a form of child abuse, you’ll be happy to know my parents’ values were fairly conservative nonetheless. My parents, father in particular, worshipped capitalism and lived by the philosophy of Keeping Up With The Jones. So I was raised to believe in hard work, getting a good education, selecting a profitable career, then owning a big home and new cars, taking at least two vacations a year to someplace nice. When I told my father at a young age that I wanted to be a writer, he was very positive — positive I’d fail, positive I’d starve all my life. But I’ve done pretty well, and he seems happy with my career choices at this late date.
An odd thing, though: throughout my middle and high school years, this non-religious kid growing up in a heavily Catholic city often got told I was more religious than I pretended to be. My teachers and classmates in particular informed me of this again and again: they told me I was Jewish.
Some of it was humorous, as when they told me my long nose, oval face and Eastern European looks (??) gave me away. But there were moments that were less fanciful and more depressing, including the time as a news reporter that I snuck into a closed union meeting. I was there to cover a vote on a contract calling for a salary cut. The local mill that employed these workers was in serious financial difficulty and the two owners — who were Jewish — insisted that a pay cut was the only way they could stay solvent. Two of the workers recognized me as being a reporter, and they were none too happy to see me; they accused me of being paid off by the mill owners to write negative articles about the union (I wish — I could have used the extra dough) and then told me to “go back to Israel where you belong.” Confronted with this kind of stupidity, I mostly kept silent.
Despite the city’s strain of anti-Semitism, I found myself increasingly drawn to Jewish writers — Franz Kafka, Jerzy Kosinski, Roland Topor, Arthur Miller. I think I related to their dark tales of social alienation — not as a Jew, since I was from a non-religious Protestant family – but, most truthfully, as a shy, withdrawn high school geek who probably had the central photo in the dictionary definition of “introverted.” I understood alienation, and experienced it, even if it was based more on social acceptance than religion.  I was also drawn to the works of Jewish filmmakers like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, for similar reasons. I emphathized with the lonely, isolated nomads, outcasts and exiles in Polanski’s cynical films, and loved the neurotic schlemiels that Allen played, like Miles Monroe in “Sleeper,” who is so cowardly he gets beaten up by Quakers.
But for years, religious wasn’t as important to me, so I mostly ignored the subject. That’s changed for me: atheism doesn’t appeal to me, because it’s mostly against something, and not really a belief in anything. But at my age and having been raised with no religious instructions whatsoever, I feel like someone who suddenly decides to sample classical musical, but has no clue what to listen to. 

Do Christian churches truly have the GPS that Michael Freeman in looking for?

So where do I go from here? That’s hard to say. I have thought about becoming Jewish and wondered, was it destiny all along? Maybe my old classmates and teachers recognized where I was headed, rather than who I was at the time, and just didn’t see the difference back then. 
My Jewish friends have offered up some amusing comments when I mention the possibility of converting. Before I could say “Oy ve!” or belt out a line or two of “Hava Nagila,” at least one of them warned me that I’d have to give up eating shellfish. I think I’ll survive.
I haven’t gone down that journey yet, and who knows if I will. I have friends who insist that their Christian church would be perfect for me – particularly since, they insist, their church doesn’t have a political litmus test. If I wanted politics, I’d join one of the major parties; I don’t need to attend a church to get spoon fed my views. (Voltaire had it right when he said God created man in His image, and then man returned the favor). 
And what would be my main reason for going down this path? To be a part of an extended family. For someone from a very small family, that’s important to me.
But sometimes I wonder if that gut level panic attack I had in the steam room wasn’t in some ways a psychic, even spiritual, connection, just my way of saying that my high school classmates and teachers may have been right all along, that I hadn’t fully recognized what they were seeing. Time will tell.

Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at

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