“Make the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.”
Bestowed on Edward Bok by his grandmother at the turn of the 20th century, these words sparked a crusade for social change that even his grandmother couldn’t have imagined. Bok worked to improve healthcare in the United States, was a benefactor of the arts and collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright to move architectural philosophy forward. And with one project in particular, Bok fulfilled his grandmother’s wish.
An immigrant from Holland, Bok made his fortune ascending the ranks to editor-in-chief of Ladies’ Home Journal and eventually retired—as many still do—to Central Florida. It was the 1920s, when the sudden production of cars and construction of roads led Bok, concerned about the destruction of Florida’s natural landscape, to purchase 56 acres of land with a very specific plan in mind.
“In the 1920s,” says architect Kenneth Treister, who co-wrote Bok Tower Gardens: America’s Taj Mahal, “the mind was being inundated with the hectic life of modern society. Bok thought it would be nice to have a serene garden, a sanctuary or a refuge, for both people and birds. It’s nice, in a way, to go somewhere beautiful and lose yourself.”
Bok hired architect Milton B. Medary Jr. to design the tower in a Gothic Revival and Art Deco style with a dash of classic romanticism. Tresiter describes the project as “the last of what they call the Golden Age of Architecture [when] art was part of the environment. The art at Bok Tower—the iron work, the ceramic work, the sculpture, the color, the texture,” he says, “is all integrated seamlessly into the exterior of the building.” Viewing the structure, it’s easy to see what he means. Materials like Georgian marble, Florida coquina stone, fired clay with ceramic glazes and sparkling jewels are built into the 205-foot-high monument.
The top of Bok Tower holds a 60-bell carillon, earning the nickname of The Singing Tower. And although the tower’s interior is not open to the public, visitors can listen to daily recitals from the carillon’s bells, some of which are six feet across—others, fist-sized. “The sound of the bells reaches for miles,” Dan Forer, who photographed the book, tells DuJour.
At Bok Tower Gardens, landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., sprawling fields and winding forest paths dotted with ponds, oaks, palms, ferns, azaleas, magnolias and much more make the garden a perfect place to find serene sanctuary—not just for its visitors but for birds, whose natural habitat is now preserved for ages.
Though Bok Tower Gardens drew attention when it first opened—President Calvin Coolidge attended the opening dedication in 1929, an event documented with photos on almost every newspaper cover in America—interest in the garden has waned. “Disney World, Busch Gardens and the Kennedy Space Center have taken the places of earlier Florida attractions like Bok Tower, Cypress Gardens and Weeki Wachee Springs—all now distant and almost forgotten,” says Forer.
But perhaps a renaissance is in order for Bok Tower with the publication of the book next month. As Treister puts it, “It’s very unusual in this world to have a beautiful building with an equally beautiful landscape. You’d have to go to the Taj Mahal to see something like that.”
Bok Tower Gardens: America’s Taj Mahal (Rizzoli) releases September 3. Click through the gallery for an inside look at the gardens and tower.