Surrounded by lush flowers and dense trees, birds flock to the Singing Tower that sits atop Iron Mountain.
These elements make up the 250-acre Bok Tower Gardens that a panel of experts ranked third in USA Today’s 10 Best Botanical Gardens in North America.
“To be on a list with some of the top gardens in the world is pretty exciting,” Bok Tower Gardens Marketing Director Erica Smith told Bay News 9. “We’re right up there with Missouri Botanical Gardens, with Denver, with Chicago, with Chanticleer (Garden of Philadelphia), with really great spectacular gardens that have just as much great history as we do. So we’re in real good company.”
The creation of the gardens came about while Edward W. Bok and Mary Louise Curtis Bok were spending the winter months of 1921 near Florida’s Lake Wales Ridge.
Bok became enamored with the views around Iron Mountain, one of the highest points in Florida at 295 feet above sea level, and envisioned building a bird sanctuary that would “touch the soul with its beauty and quiet.”
Following the purchase of the land, Bok tapped landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. – known for his wildlife conservation efforts – to transform the grounds into “a spot of beauty second to none in the country.”
Starting in 1923, it took five years for Olmsted’s plan to attract migrating birds and local wildlife to unfold. The flowers, ferns, palms, oaks, pines and fruit shrubs he carefully selected did their job, with 126 bird species taking refuge in the gardens.
The centerpiece of the site is the Singing Tower, built at the highest elevation of the gardens.
Bok wasted no expense, commissioning the best of the best to design the tower.
The 205-foot tall Gothic Revival and Art Deco tower was designed by architect Milton B. Medary, whose works include the Washington Memorial Chapel.
The tower is surrounded by several pieces of architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie’s design. Lawrie created more than 300 pieces over his career, including the bronze statue Atlas at New York City’s Rockefeller Center.
The tower’s 1,000-pound brass door, which depicts the Biblical story of creation, was created by award-winning metalworker Samuel Yellin.
The tile designs found on the third half of the tower were crafted by J. H. Dulles Allen, whose works balanced “between nature, species and gender.”
This masterpiece from master craftsmen encases a 60-bell carillon, which has had only four people play it during its existence.
Jabari Thomas of 10 News toured the tower with Geert D’Hollander, the current full-time carillonneur.
“The instrument is exceptional. When it was built in 1927, it was the heaviest instrument of the world,” he told Thomas.
D’Hollander explained to Thomas that the bells range from 16 pounds to 12 tons, with the heaviest forcing him to use a foot pedal to play it.
The Belgian-American composer gives daily recitals for visitors.
“You go downstairs, you see people smiling, you hear people singing. They’re so happy.” D’Hollander said. “If I can share this, it’s the greatest thing to do.”
Melissa’s career in writing started more than 20 years ago. Today, she lives in South Florida with her husband and two boys.