Field Trip Friday: Bok Tower Gardens and Pinewood Estate

January 10, 2014

Welcome back to Field Trip Friday! This installment takes us to one of my new favorite central Florida locations: Bok Tower Gardens and Pinewood Estate in Lake Wales. My partner in adventure, Laure Ferlita, and I drove out there just before New Year’s to see the estate decorated for the holidays and wander through the beautiful gardens. I’ve been to Bok Tower before, but not since my son was a baby, and I’d never been to Pinewood Estate. We wandered slowly through the gardens and the home, sketched outside while drinking hot chai tea, ate lunch at the café and browsed the gift shop. We completely lost track of time and stayed for more than six hours! Though many things were blooming even in December, I want to go back in the spring for peak bloom season. 

Bok Tower Gardens
Most visitors to central Florida have heard of Busch Gardens, Sea World and Disney World—but probably not Bok Tower Gardens. Bok Tower is a totally different experience, a haven of beauty and peace in contrast to the craziness of the theme parks. The gardens were the project of Edward W. Bok, a successful publisher and Pulizer Prize-winning author. The 50-acre gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. “to be a contemplative and informal woodland setting.” Crews laid irrigation pipes and brought in rich soil to create the conditions for a subtropical garden. After that, bushes and trees were planted, not only for their beauty, but to provide food for migrating birds. These plantings now provide shade for visitors as well as food and shelter for squirrels and other small creatures, and 126 bird species. The gardens house ferns, palms, oaks, pines, azaleas, magnolias, more than 150 types of camellias and many other blooming plants.

As lovely as the gardens are, the most striking and unusual feature of Bok Tower Gardens is the 205-foot marble and coquina “Singing Tower” that houses a 60-bell carillon. Carillon music is still played daily. To learn more about the carillon, click here. To actually hear it being played, click here. Mr. Bok is actually buried at the base of the tower.

Bok, who immigrated with his family from the Netherlands when he was six years old, presented the gardens to the American people in 1929 in gratitude for the opportunities he had been given. He did his best to live up to the advice given to him by his grandmother: “Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” I’m now curious about Mr. Bok, and would like to read his autobiography

You can read more about Bok Tower Gardens by clicking here, or reading Bok Tower Gardens: America’s Taj Mahal

Pinewood Estate
Pinewood Estate was built in the early 1930s for Charles Austin Buck, a Bethlehem Steel vice president. The 20-room Mediterranean-style mansion has a barrel-tile roof, beautifully carved doors and woodwork, and is situated to provide a natural flow from house to garden. (Buck was an amateur horticulturist and had the gardens laid out first, and the home positioned later.) I don’t know if it was just the holiday decorations, but I thought the home had a warm and friendly feeling, in contrast to the mansions in Newport, RI

Each room was decorated for the holidays by volunteers and sponsored designers, and you could vote for your favorite room at the end of the self-guided tour. Volunteers and a historian were available to answer questions. My favorite room:

In 1970, Edward Bok’s daughter-in-law, Nellie Lee Holt Bok, led an effort to acquire Pinewood Estate (then called “El Retiro”) for Bok Tower Gardens, and the mansion was restored and opened to the public.

The back of house
The last thing we did before heading home was visit the “Window By the Pond,” a small wooden building with a large window overlooking a Florida bog setting. We sat quietly watching birds feasting on the seed left for them, an anhinga drying its wings, and one intrepid squirrel who jumped over the water to where the seed was placed.

Every time we take a field trip, we wonder why we don’t do it more often. Yes, it takes a bit more effort to find someplace of interest and get ourselves there than it does to meet at Panera for lunch, but it’s always worth the effort to fill the well. (And if you’re wondering about the sketches, as usual, mine is unfinished—and lucky to even be started. I forgot to bring paint, and had to borrow from Laure! But I did take a reference photo and plan to finish soon. Really!)

Have you taken any field trips lately? How do you “fill the well”?

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  1. How lovely to see such lush green in the middle of winter! What fun places to visit--and I think I would far prefer these two places over Busch Gardens and Disney! When I first scrolled down and saw the Singing Tower I thought of Coit Tower! I love visiting gardens and historic homes--I need to do that more often myself--but as you say it can be all too easy to fall into the pattern of routine! I'm afraid I have nothing planned at the moment, but would love to try and go out to the western part of the state in the summer to see Willa Cather's home.

  2. Danielle--I used to enjoy Busch Gardens and Disney when our son was little, but not so much anymore. I much prefers gardens or homes. We have had a very warm winter so far, but I was surprised to see how many things were blooming , and how many things were already in bud. Since then, we've had a couple of days of cold (for us) weather--hopefully all the buds made it through OK.

    I hope you do get to visit Willa Cather's home and write about it on your blog. I think that would be an interesting visit.

  3. Great post, KJ! Love the re-visit. It truly is a beautiful place and well worth the drive as you get to connect with nature in such a serene environment.

    Many thanks for a great day!

  4. Thanks (and you're welcome), Laure. It was such a wonderful day. Want to go back in the spring?

  5. A perfect way to enjoy a winter day with a friend. Can't wait to see your sketch.

  6. It was lovely. Now I have to finish that sketch! (She's already finished hers and posted it on her blog.)