WARREN RESEN – North American Journalists Association
JEANNE O’CONNOR Photos
Central Florida is known for world-class attractions and Bok Tower Gardens is one of them. Located atop Iron Mountain, it is the highest elevation on the Florida peninsula at 298 feet.
Nearly 700 acres of conservation lands and gardens occupy these dizzying heights which surround the world famous 205-ft “Singing Tower” carillon and the 20-room 1930’s Mediterranean-style Pinewood Estate. Two hundred and fifty acres are dedicated solely to the gardens.
Designed by Fredrick Olmsted Jr., whose family’s firm designed New York’s Central Park, these are one of America’s premier gardens. Bok Tower Gardens afford visitors a breathtaking and constantly changing three season display of colorful plantings and daily views of Florida’s magnificent sunsets.
The signature feature of the gardens though is the “Singing Tower” carillon soaring 205 feet above ground level. A carillon is one of the largest of all musical instruments. What you see from ground level is actually a musical instrument enclosed in a magnificent casing. There are only four designated carillons in Florida, approximately 200 in North America and 600 worldwide.
The public can tour the gardens, hike the wooded trails, watch wildlife unobserved inside the “Window by the Pond,” tour the 1930’s Mediterranean-style Pinewood mansion, and view the exterior of the “Singing Tower” while enjoying frequent performances of wonderful music emanating from the carillon. (Hint)…While the sound of the carillon’s bells carries ¼ mile in all directions, the best listening post is approximately 250 feet from the base of the tower.
However, the one place not open to the public is the interior of the carillon’s tower. Even members of Bok Tower Gardens usually get no further then the first floor Founder’s Room when permitted entry during special events. Going all of the way to the top, meeting the carillonneur, having him play a request and viewing the bells up close and personal is a rare treat and that is what I want to share with you.
Built in 1928 and dedicated by Edward Bok in 1929, the “Singing Tower,” is visible for miles from all points of the compass. It is the focal point and signature of Bok Tower Gardens.
To be classified as a carillon, a facility must have a minimum of 23 cast bronze bells. Bok Tower has 60 bells ranging in size from 16 pounds to 12 tons. So how did they get those huge bells all the way to the top?
During construction, the bells were hoisted up through the unfinished center of the structure after which the interior was finished.
The bells are set into fixed frames and are struck by clappers attached to wires operated from an “instrument” that looks like a cross between piano and organ. The “keys” and foot pedals are pounded, literally, by the carillonneur to move the cables that move the clappers that strike the fixed bells. Playing this instrument cannot be remotely compared to a keyboard artist tickling the ivories. A carillon’s bells are tuned just after they are cast and before installation. If tuned correctly, the bells never have to be re-tuned.
Entering the interior of the tower through the magnificent brass covered teak door featuring 30 glowing panels that depict the story of creation as told in the book of Genesis, you are in Level 1, the private study of Edward Bok. The intricately designed mosaic floor prominently features a six pointed star representing the Six Days of Creation.
There are two ways of getting from this level to the top. The first involves climbing 211 steps of a spiral staircase. The second and much easier way up is taking the original Otis electric elevator with its old fashioned folding accordion gate. It can accommodate only 3 to 4 passengers comfortably.
The floors pass by slowly: Level 2 with space for a future library; Level 3 houses the tower’s mechanical equipment; Level 4, the curator’s workshop; Level 5, and last stop of the old Otis, deposits passengers in the Anton Brees Carillon Library where bookshelves hold hundreds of recordings of carillon music all of which have at one time or another been played on the carillon’s bells. It is also the carillonneur’s office.
Reached by an interior circular staircase is the carillonneur’s studio on Level 6 where the “instrument” sits in majestic solitude. Outside the sound-proofed studio are breathtaking views of the magnificent countryside. One more set of metal stairs brings you to Level 7 and the bells.
There have been four carillonneurs since the tower opened. The first was there from 1929 to 1967. The fourth and current resident carillonneur is Geert D’hollander, whom we had the honor of meeting. After taking us on a tour of his domain and explaining the intricacies of the carillon’s operation, Mr. D’hollander offered to play a request for my wife. WOW!
I’ve been a travel writer for more than a dozen years and never before had as special an experience as this. It is something my wife and I will always remember.
Next time you are in or near Lake Wales, Florida you must visit or revisit Bok Tower Gardens. There is always something new to see or something old to remember.
Bok Tower Gardens will be announcing an exciting new addition to their gardens. I was even told what it would be. However, I have been sworn to secrecy. So stay tuned.
In this special place, it is evident Edward Bok took his grandmother’s words to heart. She advised him to “make the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.”
Bok Tower Gardens is in Polk County southwest of Orlando.