Florida Travel

Florida discoveries: Bok Tower, wrapped up in history, marble and song

The Singing Tower at Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales, Florida
The Singing Tower at Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales, Florida Miami Herald Staff

From the parking lot, we could see the top of the Singing Tower peeking through the pines and moss-draped oaks, an elegant pink tower of marble and coquina stone that houses a set of bells — a carillon — that plays short concerts every day.

We were casual visitors, having stopped on impulse at Bok Tower Gardens on the drive home from Central Florida to Miami. We knew little about it and thought we’d be in and out in 30 minutes. We were wrong.

There were unexpected bonuses: the gardens — designed by Frederick Law Olmstead — that surround the Singing Tower, the gorgeous Gothic and Art Deco details of the structure itself and the view from the Lake Wales Ridge looking west across orchards.

The 205-foot tower, built in the 1920s, is off U.S. 27 three miles north of Lake Wales and 55 miles southwest of Orlando. It stands atop 298-foot Iron Mountain, the highest point along the Florida peninsula (there are a few higher spots in the Panhandle). Edward W. Bok, a Dutch immigrant, author and publisher of Ladies’ Home Journal, bought the land for a bird sanctuary. He commisioned Olmsted to design the gardens with the Singing Tower as its centerpiece, then opened the grounds to the public. Bok, who died in 1930, is buried at the base of the tower. It is now designated as a National Historic Landmark.

126 Species of wild birds observed at Bok Tower Gardens

At the visitors center — there are also a cafe and a gift store with a wing just for plants — we joined a guided tour that took us on a leisurely, winding path through the gardens and bird sanctuary. Only some of the flowers were in bloom for our visit in January, but gardens are known for their blaze of spring color, when azaleas, camellias and magnolias are in bloom. There are edible berries for the birds, duck ponds and bird baths, and for humans, nooks for contemplation and quiet conversation.

As we made our way up the gentle slope, the tower came in and out of view through the trees, until we came from behind a cluster of trees and shrubs and saw it rising high above us and in the reflecting pool before us. Where we had seen only pink from a distance, now we could see the veins of pink and coral and gray in the stone, the stone sculpture, wrought iron and gorgeous tilework, called ceramic faience, that portrays birds, trees, flowers and other scenes of nature. A marble sundial was set in one exterior wall, a brass entrance door in another.

It was to be a place for withdrawal, for contemplation, reflection and spiritual refreshment through contact with Nature.

Architects’ report on status of the sanctuary 27 years after it opened

The tower is known both as Bok Tower and the Singing Tower for its carillon, which has 60 bells ranging in weight from 16 pounds to nearly 12 tons. We did not get to go inside. Built to be appreciated from the outside, the tower houses a library, offices, water tanks, maintenance area and of course the bell chamber, but is not open to the public. It is surrounded by a moat.

The tower and grounds are undergoing a $12 million expansion and refurbishment that should wrap up next summer, most notably restorative work to the carillon and the faces of the tower.

▪ Bok Tower Gardens, 1151 Tower Blvd., Lake Wales; 863-676-1408; boktowergardens.org. Open daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Carillon concerts at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. daily with short selections played on the hour and half-hour. Admission: $12 adults, $4 children 5-12.

Marjie Lambert: 305-376-4939, @marjielambert