The history of Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, FL

Get to know the lore behind Bok Tower, one of Central Florida’s most iconic structures.

A postcard featuring Bok Tower from 1930 | Photo via Florida Memory

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Bok Tower in Lake Wales is undoubtedly one of Central Florida’s most recognizable icons, but have you ever wondered about how it came to be? Before hopping in the car to take a quick trip and see it for yourself, allow us to get you up to speed on the history of this iconic landmark.

The man who started it all

Born in the Netherlands in 1863, Edward W. Bok immigrated to Brooklyn, NY at age six. With a love of education and writing, he worked in advertising + publishing and was published 12 times in his lifetime. In 1889, he became the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal — the first magazine in the world with 1 million subscribers.

Bok was very interested in architecture, and he was actually one of the first to promote house plans from architect Frank Lloyd Wright, another Central Florida legend, in his magazine. While we’re sharing fun facts, did you know that Bok was also the first person to coin the term “living room”?

Spending winters in Lake Wales, Bok fell in love with Florida’s natural beauty. He would look out across Polk County and marvel at the peaceful landscape from Iron Mountain, a spot on the Lake Wales Ridge that’s 295 feet above sea level. It was then that he decided to build a sanctuary for birds + wildlife and call it the “Mountain Lake Sanctuary and Singing Tower.”

An aerial view of Bok Tower Gardens in 1953 | Photo by Florida Memory

The design and construction

Once Bok had an idea, he needed a team to bring it to life. He reached out to landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. for help designing the 157-acre gardens. Of course, Olmsted Jr. wasn’t just any architect — his father designed Central Park, and he himself had worked at the White House + the Biltmore Estate.

Over the course of five years, Olmsted Jr. worked to plant native and exotic plants that would thrive in Florida’s humid climate and welcome migrating birds. You can also see his touch in the Reflection Pool, which mirrors the image of the Bok Singing Tower.

The Bok Singing Tower was designed by another big name: Milton B. Medary, president of the American Institute of Architects. Medary was inspired by art deco and neo-Gothic design for the tower. The structure of the tower was built with steel, then covered by coquina stone from St. Augustine, FL and pink + gray marble from Georgia.

Instead of the typical gargoyles, Bok wanted something more natural and inviting to top the 205-foot-tall bell tower. Sculptor Lee O. Lawrie sculpted marble birds, plants, and humans to show the balance between nature and man. With a huge brass door and tile grilles from some more of the nation’s top makers, the tower just needed one thing — the carillon bells.

The tower has seven levels and holds 60 bronze carillon bells, the smallest weighing 16 pounds and the largest coming in at more than 11 tons. It gets its “Singing Tower” moniker from the way the bells seem to sing throughout the gardens. The bells are played by musicians known as “carillonneurs” that specialize in playing these large instruments. The park has had only four full-time carillonneurs since 1928.

President Coolidge, Bok, and their wives at the dedication ceremony | Photo by Florida Memory

The opening

Mountain Lake Sanctuary and the Singing Tower officially opened in February of 1929 with President Calvin Coolidge present. They were dedicated by Bok to thank America for the opportunities that he had been given here. He died shortly afterwards in 1930 but was buried in the gardens he loved so much at the base of the Singing Tower. The sanctuary was renamed to Bok Tower Gardens in 1986 to honor Bok’s philanthropic contributions to the world, and it is still one of Florida’s most peaceful havens.

Be a part of Bok’s legacy by visiting the Gardens daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Pro tip: You can hear the daily carillon concerts at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., and grab a bite from the Blue Palmetto Café for a picnic.

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