Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it. ~ Edward W. Bok
Among the fragrant orange groves of Central Florida there’s a wonderful high-rise spot where carillon music filters through serene garden spaces; where visitors may wander among exquisite blooms, gaze in reflecting pools at sky and trees, walk nature trails to the tune of singing birds and bells — or simply sit in contemplation…‘and fill their souls with the quiet, the repose, the influence of the beautiful.’
This quiet place, rising above the bustle of modern-day Central Florida – the Bok Tower Gardens – is a national historic landmark. It’s a 250-acre sanctuary of pleasant gardens and signature 205-foot tower of pink and gray Georgia marble and coquina shell stone which houses a 60-bell carillon. The Bok sanctuary and Pinewood Estate was dedicated in 1929 by President Calvin Coolidge.
Known as the Singing Tower, this place held a magical spot in my memory. No, not because I’d been there; it was because I hadn’t been there. My only thread of connection with the Bok Singing Tower was a distant, but persistent memory — an image that would remain in my mind for decades – an image on one of those antique style post cards.
My grandparents wintered in the Bradenton area for many years. They’d always send home enticing post cards with pictures of orange groves or palm trees, or shells and ocean beaches or flamingos and cypress swamps. Once they sent a postcard of The Singing Tower.
“What is a singing tower? I’d wonder. Well, I tucked the image into my memory bank. “One day,” I vowed, “I’ll go visit this Singing Tower.”
My family never traveled to Florida to visit my grandparents, like my other cousins did. After all, there were five of us; and that would be a major undertaking. One January, when I was in my teens, we finally planned to go; but then a cousin, who was my age, died suddenly. So the Florida trip died, too. Perhaps I wouldn’t have seen the Singing Tower; but somehow it remained on the backburner of my mind.
Then, years later, when my in-laws moved to Florida, they settled on the east coast side. So that’s where we always traveled. I probably mentioned the Singing Tower, but if so, no one ever took me up on going there. Last winter, however, it happened to work out that we’d be going in that direction. I talked my husband into taking time to check out this landmark at Lake Wales.
I knew somehow that I was supposed to go there last winter. Other than experiencing what this Singing Tower and gardens was all about, I felt that something bigger was drawing me there. While some tourists may bypass this tower in their travels, or dismiss it as not so spectacular, I felt compelled to check it out.
While approaching the estate, with the tower top in view, we were skeptical that such a beautiful place would exist up the pine scrubland road. Soon, though, on this bright, sunny day we discovered the enchanted oasis, located on the Lake Wales Ridge, the highest point above sea level in the State of Florida.
Walking up to the entrance, I caught my breath as I gazed upward at the Edward Bok motto written across the archway, the motto I placed at the front of this blog: Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it. ~ Edward W. Bok
We spent an enjoyable afternoon walking the nature trails, listening to the beautiful carillon music, breathing in the fragrance of flower gardens bursting with color, soaking in the serenity of reflecting pool and ponds, basking in the warmth of the sun, and dining al fresco at the Blue Palmetto Café. I ate lunch thinking about this unexpected discovery.
Edward W. Bok’s theme of beauty caught my imagination, as that is my signature theme in my writing. Until that day, I’d been totally unaware of Edward Bok, nor his lifelong emphasis on the beautiful. I began to see how I’ve evolved in my personal mission for why I write. I began to comprehend a little bit better, the intricacies of my personal journey toward my theme of all things beautiful.
Interestingly, it’s amazing how your life themes can be set in childhood; and it’s amazing, too, the subtle influences that can blossom many years later. For Edward Bok, it was his grandmother’s words as she bid him farewell on the family journey from the Netherlands to America. At the tender age of six, I wondered, how can it be that his entire life would be built around that theme of making the world a better and more beautiful place?
But then, looking back, I see the influence of my grandmothers – my grandmother who sent me the post card, and my other grandmother who cultivated her own secret gardens. Each had a personal sense of the beautiful. One perhaps was in a more traditional, elegant sense; the other enjoyed a homey Victorian cottage style. Somehow I adopted a comfortable, eclectic mix of both in my outlook.
But, I realize that it was my grandmothers who taught me to see the beauty in every flower, as well as the beauty in the ordinary.
I became curious about this influential man, Edward Bok, born in the Netherlands in 1863, who came to America at age six. In the wonderful museum on the premises, a plaque emphasizes: “These words of Edward Bok’s grandmother to her grandson as he left for America, guided him throughout his life. They were often in his thoughts, and were central to the concept of this garden. Making the world a bit better or more beautiful was consistent with his many other contributions to American life.”
I’d also been unaware of Bok’s amazing career back in the early years of the 20th Century, when he was editor of the Ladies Home Journal for 30 years, back in my grandmothers’ time. As noted at the Bok Museum:
“His work at the ‘Ladies Home Journal’ insured his need to have the greatest writers and thinkers address issues that were of concern to his readers. Additionally the breadth of his personal interests and concerns, from world peace, community betterment and women’s rights, caused him to correspond and meet with a broad range of individuals.”
Among the notable figures were: Charles Darwin (scientist and originator of the theory of evolution), Frederick Douglass (former slave and leader of the abolitionist movement), Phineas T Barnum (19th Century Showman and creator of Barnum and Bailey Circus), Robert Browning (English writer), Rudyard Kipling (English writer), Jules Verne (French author), Franklin D Roosevelt (President of the United States), Frank Lloyd Wright (American architect).
Bok, who wintered in Florida before World War I, in 1921 purchased land at Mountain Lake, with its panoramic view from the top of Iron Mountain. At the Garden of Serenity are these words: “It was here that Bok decided to create a place of quiet repose, like the island home of his Dutch grandparents, where plants and birds would flourish, and people could be close to Nature.”
Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr helped ‘to transform the pine scrub site into a verdant garden,’ with the Singing Tower soon to follow.
Bok’s desire to create this magnificent refuge, for the public to enjoy, came from his passionate desire to leave a legacy of beauty for the world… a spot that would reach out in beauty to the people, and fill their souls with the quiet, the repose, the influence of the beautiful.
I left Bok Tower Gardens happy to have finally visited the mystical Singing Tower beckoning me from that antique postcard of my childhood dreams. Decades later it was fun to discover that Bok’s dream a century ago, matched my own dream of today.
May we all take part in passing along this dream, to make the world a better, more beautiful place, by our having lived in it.
Bok Tower Garden Links:
Link below for spring blooming highlights and events: