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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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 www.boktowergardens.org.