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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Finding Sanctuary at Bok Towers

Bok Tower Gardens - National Historic Landmark
1151 Tower Blvd | Lake Wales, FL

I believe that we should live like tourists in our own towns. We should get out and see the sights, go out to the park, and visit a new eatery. We should treat each weekend like a vacation and take advantage of what our towns have to offer. We shouldn't wait for someone to visit to go to the museum or catch that show.

I wanted to make the most of my trip down south for the holidays. I wanted to plan activities with my family to get out and enjoy the warm weather in the Sunshine State. While I was planning, a childhood friend told me about Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. It's this oasis in the middle of the state, developed in the late 20s as a sanctuary for the community. Edwards W. Bok commissioned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. to transform the Florida scrub into a lush and vibrant garden and wildlife habitat. It has a well-designed landscape, a historic mansion, and a large bell tower equipped with a 60-bell carillon. It is on the highest point in Florida (Iron Mountain), it has a long and rich history, it hosts notable events, and I'd never heard of it! So the day after Christmas, my parents and I treked out to Bok Tower Gardens. It was worth the trip, and it might become a standard to visit this beautiful space when I'm visiting family. 

We drove through the endless orange groves and wooded landscape down a two lane highway to get to this spot. It would be almost therapeutic if there were no other cars on the road. It made me realize how flat Florida really is. 

We drove up to the gate and paid for the gardens and the Pinewood Estate holiday tour. We parked and saw the colorful tower through the trees. The staff was friendly and helpful as we went into the visitor's center and got a map. Inside the building was a small exhibit detailing the history of Bok, his wildlife advocate work, the construction of the tower, and a model of the carillon keyboard. Displays showed pictures and facts about the local plants, wildlife and overall topography.

We made our way through the gardens and citrus trees to the Pinewood Estate to view the holiday decorations. This 1930s estate was build for Charles Austin Buck, a steel magnate. This 20-room mansion was brightly decorated for the season. Each room was decorated by a local business and the visitors voted on their favorite at the end. From the kitchen, through the shared spaces, bedrooms, and to the front door we saw colorful tile work, functional and decorative furniture, and an architectural design that took advantage of Florida sunshine. From the floors to the ceilings, the space was perfectly maintained. In each room a volunteer was available to answer questions and provide more information.

The Christmas decorations in each room were unique but consistent within their assigned space. A square wreath laced with peacock feathers caught my eye. Rooms included winter snow fall themes, a royal blue peacock theme, a bright red cardinals theme, and earthy wilderness themes. Decorated trees, linens, pillows, and rugs were all part of the room's Christmas decor. Garland wrapped around lamps and table legs. No part of the room was neglected. My favorite was a room decorated from top to bottom with wreaths, garland, and centerpieces made of dried lemons, dried oranges, cinnamon, star anise, and clove. It was vibrant and fit perfectly in this Florida home.

We left and walked around the mansion to admire the gardens and landscape features originally designed by William Lyman Phillips (from the Olmsted Brother's firm). The landscape design was so important to Buck that it was designed before the house was to integrate the building cleanly with the landscape architecture. We sat by a stone grotto. We found a vegetable garden in full bloom, a long stretch of bright green grass, and  beautiful ornamental trees. We missed the guided tour, but listened to a couple of the facts when we caught up to the group. We let them move on and kept exploring. We looked at each of the plants in the garden surrounding the Oriental Moon Gate Fountain

We walked up to the tower grounds and were able to look out onto the beautiful landscape of orange groves and wooded areas. We were high above the surrounding areas and could see for miles. After the shock of being on such a high natural point in Florida wore off, we turned our attention to the tower. We examined the pink and gray Georgia marble and the Florida coquina that made up this 205-foot tower. It was crisp, clean and bright. We studied the tropical imagery made up of yellow and green tiles. We found different animals and plant life carved into each level and curling out onto ledges. We looked up to the marble bird statues on the parapet. The large brass door shined brightly in the sunlight. I could look at this tower for hours.

We fed the koi that were swimming around in the tower's moat. Then the carillon Christmas music concert started. People sat on benches, spread out on the grass, and sat in seats in front of a large screen that showed the musician playing. We stood and watched as the performer played the massive instrument. We listened to the traditional English carols and some improvisation that showcased the resonance of the bells.

We strolled back through the garden and ate at the cafe. The had sandwiches, salads, and hot dogs. We sat on the patio and looked at the plant installations in the courtyard and surrounding gardens.

Bok Tower Gardens is a treasure. In a place where brightly-colored flowers can bloom year-round and wildlife flourishes, it is worth visiting any time of the year. It was peaceful, it was serene, it was a sanctuary. Edward W. Bok was successful. He created a retreat for Central Florida residents, local community, and even wildlife. As you walk in you read a quote that he picked up from his grandmother, and as you leave you understand it fully, "Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it."


  1. That was so beautifully discribed

    1. Thank you. It was a really great experience. I can't wait to go back and try some of the walking trails