Inside the Bok Singing Tower

Edward Bok left a legacy of beauty that continues to rank high on Vero Beach residents' destination list

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Grateful for the opportunities afforded him in his adopted homeland, Edward Bok intended the Singing Tower and surrounding gardens as a gift to the American people. The site was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge on February 1, 1929
Grateful for the opportunities afforded him in his adopted homeland, Edward Bok intended the Singing Tower and surrounding gardens as a gift to the American people. The site was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge on February 1, 1929.

The Tower will rise out of a dense forest of everlasting green.” It sounds like a line from a chivalrous adventure story; the destination, perhaps, of a knight’s valiant quest. Thus did Edward Bok describe the masterpiece that bears his name. It is a great tower in the midst of a garden, brought into existence purely for the love of beauty, inspired by the wisdom of a kindly grandmother.

Bok Tower Gardens is located in Lake Wales, about 80 miles west of Vero Beach. The 205-foot bell tower contains 60 bells ranging in size from a monumental 11 tons to a comparatively tiny 16 pounds. Together, these bells form an extraordinary musical instrument known as a carillon. The structure is therefore known as the Singing Tower. 

Netherlands native Edward W. Bok emigrated to the United States as a child. After a successful career in publishing and philanthropy, he died within sight of the Singing Tower he created; he is buried at its base
Netherlands native Edward W. Bok emigrated to the United States as a child. After a successful career in publishing and philanthropy, he died within sight of the Singing Tower he created; he is buried at its base.

It is set in the midst of a garden—which Bok also envisioned as a sanctuary for native and migratory birds—designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., who was responsible for landscaping at the White House and the National Zoo, and also worked with his father on the Biltmore Estate. 

The gardens and tower were established in 1929 and dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge. Bok, the retired publishing magnate who commissioned the projects, was motivated by advice his grandmother had given him when he was a boy: “Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” With the tower and gardens, Bok truly honored her guidance.

Although it is a monumental work of architecture, the Singing Tower was completed in merely a year and a half. Erica Smith, director of public relations for Bok Tower Gardens, comments wryly, “It took us longer to complete our new Visitor Center!” 

The 205-foot tower rises majestically above surrounding terrain that is already nearly 300 feet above sea level
The 205-foot tower rises majestically above surrounding terrain that is already nearly 300 feet above sea level.

By design, the tower emerges almost by surprise as one strolls the garden paths. “Olmstead was opposed to revealing what you were walking to until you were right in front of it,” explains Brendan Huggins, the sanctuary’s director of horticulture. Thus, through the use of meandering pathways, undulating terrain, and trees laden with Spanish moss, the imposing structure is virtually concealed until suddenly the visitor sees it close at hand.

The tower is made of coquina along with Georgia marble that has hues of pink and dove gray. The warm colors are well suited to the subtropical environment. The architect, Milton B. Medary, noted that while the Singing Tower was inspired by the carillon towers of Northern Europe, the idea was reimagined to harmonize with the setting, and the materials were chosen accordingly. 

Furthermore, the tower is a fascinating blend of architectural elements from around the world. Medary wrote: “The bells must sing from a tower growing naturally out of the soil and the spirit of the Sanctuary, and at the same time pay tribute to its ancestry—not only to the traditions of the bell music of the North, but also the spirit of the arts which had been born under the blue skies and sparkling sunshine of other parts of the world: the colored marbles of Italy; the contrasts of stately mass and sculptured frieze of Greece; the plant and animal motifs of Persia and India, and the porcelain temples of China.” 

The tower’s sole point of ingress and egress is a grand brass door, designed by renowned metalsmith Samuel Yellin, that depicts the story of creation from the book of Genesis
The tower’s sole point of ingress and egress is a grand brass door, designed by renowned metalsmith Samuel Yellin, that depicts the story of creation from the book of Genesis.

The result is an imaginative, graceful and beautiful work of architecture. A reflecting pool, inspired by that of the Taj Mahal, mirrors the tower in a way that changes impressionistically according to weather and light.

The Singing Tower is adorned with colorful tile work reminiscent of mosaics, as well as elaborate sculptures. With a vibrant palette of turquoise, ochre, green, blue, and pink, they play off of the warm hues of the marble and coquina; and by portraying imagery of trees, foliage, flowers, birds, and animals, they harmonize with the surrounding garden. Artist J.H. Dulles Allen was responsible for the tile work, which shows undeniable flair and a touch of whimsy.

The sculptures, created by Lee Lawrie, also harmonize with the gardens; in fact, they do so in a way that beautifully reverses a familiar motif in art history. Whereas a bell tower of the Middle Ages would likely be adorned with frightening gargoyles, the sculptures of the Singing Tower reflect themes of nature and purposely convey joy rather than fear. Carvings of birds seem to be everywhere, mirroring the living birds for which the garden is a haven. As Lawrie wrote, “Since the Singing Tower is in a Bird and Plant Sanctuary, the scheme for the sculpture was mostly of birds and plants.” 

It is the colossal carillon that makes the Singing Tower sing. Its 60 bells range in size from 16 pounds to more than 11 tons
It is the colossal carillon that makes the Singing Tower sing. Its 60 bells range in size from 16 pounds to more than 11 tons.

The glistening brass door of the tower presents a brilliant, burnished contrast with the surrounding stone. It was made by artistic metalworker Samuel Yellin, inspired by a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance: the doors of the Baptistery of Florence, made by Lorenzo Ghiberti. The gilded baptistery doors, which feature relief panels of biblical scenes, were so admired by Michelangelo that he called them the “Gates of Paradise.” 

Though the tower is Gothic in design, its symbols and imagery draw from its Florida surroundings rather than the gargoyles usually associated with Gothic architecture
Though the tower is Gothic in design, its symbols and imagery draw from its Florida surroundings rather than the gargoyles usually associated with Gothic architecture.

The door of Bok Tower could also live up to that name, in both beauty and themes. While Ghiberti’s choice of characters was wide ranging, Yellin focuses on scenes from the book of Genesis relating to creation and the Garden of Eden. In one relief panel, an elephant, a horse, a bull, a deer, and a wolf are all resting peacefully together in the garden. The series of scenes concludes with the expulsion of Adam and Eve, lending a bittersweet note to a work of art that is itself situated in a beautiful garden.

There is so much to take in at the tower that it can almost come as a surprise when the bells burst into song. Bok was fascinated by the fusion of architecture and music. He wrote, “When you hear the carillon at the Sanctuary send out its glorious melodies from the tower’s heights you lose the idea of the tower as just a building, or of the bells as bells. Instead you feel the whole unit alive, a wonderful singing force.”

Philadelphia architect Milton B. Medary married Gothic elements with coquina stone from St. Augustine and pink-and-gray marble from Georgia
Philadelphia architect Milton B. Medary married Gothic elements with coquina stone from St. Augustine and pink-and-gray marble from Georgia.

The man behind the music today is Geert D’Hollander, whose study is inside the tower, which visitors are not normally permitted to enter. Intriguing chambers lie beyond the brass door. The ground floor, called the Founder’s Room, features vaulted ceilings reminiscent of European cathedral architecture. 

Higher in the tower is D’Hollander’s study, where he keeps antique books about carillons and a framed sheet of music from a sixteenth-century illuminated manuscript. The windows and small balconies offer sweeping vistas of the gardens and surrounding landscape. In these atmospheric surroundings, D’Hollander looks back at the journey that led him to the Singing Tower.

“I was born and raised in Belgium, and my dad was a carillonneur as well,” he says. As a child, he was fascinated whenever he visited his father at work. “I had a chance to climb medieval towers that had bats and owls and secret passages. If you’re 4 or 5 years old, you’re sold!” The sense of adventure and intrigue convinced the younger D’Hollander that he wanted to carry on the family tradition. 

Belgian American musician and composer Geert D'Hollander is the Singing Tower’s fourth full-time carillonneur, a position he has held for 10 years
Belgian American musician and composer Geert D’Hollander is the Singing Tower’s fourth full-time carillonneur, a position he has held for 10 years.

This interest led to his first visit to Bok Tower Gardens. “When I graduated from the Royal Carillon School, my dad said, ‘I’m now going to share with you the most beautiful instrument in the world.’ And he flew me from Belgium here, to Bok Tower.” At the time, D’Hollander had no idea that someday he himself would be the tower’s carillonneur. He was simply amazed at the beauty of the tower and at the opportunity he had, as a young man, to play music there. 

“This place is, in the carillon world, the Holy Grail,” he says, using a fittingly medieval metaphor. The bells were cast by the Taylor Foundry in Loughborough, England and shipped to Florida at Bok’s commission. In the entire world there are only 600 carillons. D’Hollander has played 400 of them. Bok Tower’s carillon, he declares, “is second to none.” 

Furthermore, since many carillon towers, such as the historic European ones D’Hollander knew growing up, are located in cities, there is often noise pollution that interferes with the music of the bells. In contrast, Bok’s method of placing a carillon tower in the midst of a garden was intended to make certain that nothing would mar the purity of the music. “This is an oasis,” says D’Hollander. 

How do you play an instrument that comprises 60 bells? Just below the belfry is a studio wherein D’Hollander sits and plays an intricate network of levers and pedals; he likens it to the keyboard of a giant piano. For many of the bells, he uses the wooden levers; for the largest ones he uses the pedals. 

Traditionally, tower bells also strike the hour. That action is automated now, and D’Hollander is careful not to visit the belfry when the hour is about to strike; stand right under the bells while they are ringing and the sound is deafening. 

Does the belfry have the proverbial bats? No; however, owls have occasionally been seen there.

Bok Singing Tower

D’Hollander quips that his job is so wonderful that he will never retire—unless he has the opportunity to pass the torch to his daughter, who is herself an aspiring carillonneur. Perhaps the family tradition will continue. In any case, D’Hollander is deeply appreciative of the beauty that surrounds him and that his music is a part of. “I’ve never seen a more beautiful tower. And the gardens are like paradise.”

In his day, Bok wrote the following description of visitors to the garden: “Tired and exhausted from the world, they are seeking and finding repose and quiet amid the stillness and the beauty.” How much more applicable this statement is in today’s harried times! 

The garden continues to be a haven where visitors can find refreshment and inspiration from nature. There, from the everlasting green of the forest, the tower rises up with all the colorful plumage of its art and architecture. And, like a bird soaring up to the sky, it sings out joyously. 

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