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Bok Tower Gardens Embarks on Largest Expansion in Its History

For 85 years, Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales has been a reminder of the way Florida used to be. On Saturday, the gardens will mark its 85th birthday with a free open house and comments from former Senator Bob Graham. They'll also announce plans for the biggest expansion in its history. We look at how one of Florida's oldest attractions will be transformed - but essentially stay the same.

Bok Tower Gardens has been described as an island of tranquility in a sea of a Florida constantly changing. Since 1929, the "Singing Tower" has lorded over Lake Wales, atop the highest hill this side of the Panhandle. This week, this refuge of natural Florida celebrates its 85th birthday. Times have changed a bit since President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the Art Deco carillon tower, fashioned of pink Georgia marble and native Florida coquina.

But not much has changed here. The winding pathways designed by legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. still take you to unexpected places before delivering you to the 205-foot-tall tower. The only sounds here are the tinkling of the carillon bells that can heard through the wind whispering through the canopy of towering live oaks.

Credit Yoselis Ramos / WUSF

And that's just the way they like it around here. But change is on the way. Today, Gardens President David Price will announce their biggest expansion - ever.

"Well, I think it's preserving what we have. It's rejuvenating the garden and restoring the tower," says Price. "But also opening the garden to new audiences. We're really expanding our educational programming, our area that children can interact and play. The future is what's exciting."

The changes will start at the very beginning - the visitor's center. The exhibits will be made more interactive so visitors can see what's so special about it, to "set the stage" for their visit. Then, the main pathway will be paved so wheelchairs and strollers can see more of the garden. Part of the plan, says Joan Thomas, the garden's development director, is to turn back to Olmstead's original design. He wanted people to approach the tower slowly.

"It was the type of approach where people would see the tower, and then not see it, and then all of a sudden," she says, "there would be this reveal."

(Click on the link below to watch a video accompaniment to this story)


But almost immediately after the dedication, a parking lot was built that intruded on that design. So part of the renovation is to recreate that show uphill climb to the tower's signature reflecting pond.

"One of the things we're doing in our long-range plan is to realign the pathway, so that visitors are approaching through the historic core garden, in the way that Olmstead intended," she says. "It's been very gratifying when we've been collecting photos and stories from our visitors that they've shared, what they call the iconic shot in front of the tower and the railing."

Next up is a restoration of the tile grilles that shade the huge carillon bells. They're just under the giant stone herons and pelicans that act as a kind of Florida gargoyle at tower's farthest reaches. They're starting to show their age. It's the final stage of a job that's taken some 20 years - and will cost a couple million dollars.

Credit Yoselis Ramos / WUSF

Of course, some of the new projects aren't as striking as rappelling 600 feet above sea level. As we walk past the tower, Thomas tells me of plans to replant a lot of the Florida-friendly shrubs and flowering trees. And a new walkway will open up the garden's more wild northern end, connecting a diverse arrangement of ecologies, from an oak hammock to a sandhill preserve and wetland bog.

"We're in what is going to be the future Wild Garden," she says. "And this part of the garden has traditionally been a little bit - wild. Intentionally - it was always an area that was for wildlife and had been a rougher part of the garden. So what we envisioned for this Florida wildlife garden is actually a story that our landscape designers - and working with them - they really uncovered a lot of the beautiful ecology of this place."

A new oval walkway and special event lawn will be constructed behind the visitor center. Nearby, a children's garden will be constructed, along with a garden made up of vegetables and herbs used for cooking.

And a new path will cut across the hill to Pinewood Estate, the 20-room Mediterranean-style mansion built in the early 1930's for the vice president of Bethlehem Steel. That will eliminate the need to take a shuttle bus around the garden's perimeter.

And from here, you can see how high you are, atop Iron Mountain, the tallest hill in peninsular Florida.

"This is one of the areas in the gardens that people really get a sense of how high they are above sea level," says Thomas. "And what we like to tell them is that on a very clear day, they're seeing 14 to 15 miles out to Bartow and Mulberry. You can see the gypsum stacks from the phosphate mines."

Ground should be broken for the expansion in mid summer, with working taking another year and a half before the gardens is transformed.

Gardens Director Price says some of their biggest donors came forward before detailed plans were announced. So far, more than $8 million has been raised, with $4 million to go.

But in a place where time stands still, how would Garden's founder Edward Bok feel about all this change? Thomas says Bok was "always pushing the envelope."

"He challenged a lot of reforms in his day," she says. "And I think that above all, he'd want this place to stay relevant. So I don't think he'd want it stuck in time."

Credit Bok Tower Gardens
The tower's brass door depicts scenes from Creation

Here's some information on Saturday's Dedication Day, from the Bok Tower Gardens website:

Join us in celebrating our 85th anniversary with up-close-and-personal experiences at the Gardens. We will be open free of charge on Saturday, February 1 in honor of our Dedication Day ceremony and events.

Bok Tower Gardens commemorates its 85th anniversary with free admission and a special Dedication Day ceremony on Saturday, February 1 with former U.S. Senator Bob Graham. Your Story Is Our Story is the theme of the day’s event from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The National Historic Landmark was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge on February 1, 1929 as a gift to the American people from Pulitzer Prize-winning author, humanitarian and world peace advocate Edward Bok.  Bok’s grandmother told him to “make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it,” which he did throughout his lifetime – and it still guides the Gardens’ mission today.

Credit Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens
"Crossing the Moat"

Crossing the Moat – 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

One of the Gardens’ most popular special events, “Crossing the Moat,” gives visitors a rare opportunity to pass through the historic iron gates that surround the Singing Tower for a closer look at the Great Brass Door. Designed by renowned master metal worker Samuel Yellin, the Tower’s imposing door weighs approximately 1,100 pounds and features 32 brass panels depicting the Biblical story of creation.


Credit Bok Tower Gardens
Japanese drummers

Dedication Day Ceremony – 11 a.m.

Japanese drummers will perform at 10:15 a.m. to invite all present to the Singing Tower for a ceremony featuring the presentation of the colors by the Lake Wales High School JROTC, followed by the singing of “America the Beautiful” by Amelia Updike, community volunteer and friend of Bok Tower Gardens.

Father Tom Seitz, Jr. from the Church of the Good Shepherd in Lake Wales will give the invocation, and the City of Lake Wales will present a proclamation declaring the first week of February as “Bok Tower Gardens Week.”

Former U.S. Senator Bob Graham will speak about the rich history and passion of Edward Bok and the historical importance of Bok Tower Gardens to the State of Florida. This will be followed by a major announcement affecting the future of the Gardens.

Dundee Ridge Middle School “Select Choir,” directed by Cathy Montero, will perform together with Geert D’hollander on the Singing Tower carillon. Complimentary refreshments will be served immediately following the ceremony.

Credit Bok Tower Gardens

Tree Planting – 2 p.m.

In keeping with Edward Bok’s enduring interest in nature, the Gardens will host a special tree planting ceremony at 2 p.m. The trees serve as a memento of the anniversary and a tangible way to follow the advice given to a young Edward by his grandmother to “make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.”

Other February 1 Activities:

  • Free Pinewood Estate tours from 10 a.m.to 5 p.m.
  • Free greenhouse tours from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Free conservation tours at 1:30, 2:30, and 3:30 p.m.
  • Distribution of 2,500 longleaf pine seedlings for visitors to plant at home
  • “A Look Back” exhibit in the Visitor Center featuring lesser-known facts, stories and photographs from throughout the Gardens’ 85-year history
Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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