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The Masters Behind the Masterpiece

Posted: Thursday, January 7, 2010 in News

LAKE WALES, Fla. – The story behind Bok Tower Gardens is one of unprecedented historical significance. First, it is one immigrant’s extraordinary gesture of gratitude to thank his adopted country for the opportunities he was given. Second, it is remarkable that this one man was able to assemble and inspire the most famed artisans of his generation to work collaboratively to create “a spot of beauty second to none in the country” that has continued to inspire visitors for generations.

Edward W. Bok, his cadre of master artisans and hundreds of laborers worked for more than seven years to design and create a living legacy for all time. For nearly 80 years, the Gardens has served as a source of personal, spiritual and cultural enrichment for more than 23 million visitors.

Bok commissioned the following eminent artisans to help him create the masterpiece now known as Bok Tower Gardens:

Boston Landscape Architect – Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.
Philadelphia Architect – Milton B. Medary
New York City Sculptor – Lee Lawrie
Philadelphia Metalworker – Samuel Yellin
Philadelphia Tileworks – J. H. Dulles Allen
English Bell Makers – John Taylor Bellfounders

Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870-1959)
Pivotal to Bok’s plan to create the Gardens was the participation of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the most distinguished landscape architect of the generation. As bearer of the most renowned name in landscape architecture, Olmsted was chosen for positions of prominence from the very start of his career. He was the son of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture and designer of New York City’s Central Park. After graduating from Harvard, Olmsted Jr. worked with his father on the Biltmore Estate and eventually landscaped many of Washington, D.C.’s most prominent landmarks, including the White House, Jefferson Memorial, Washington National Cathedral and the National Zoo. Later in his career, he wrote the key language of the federal legislation that established the National Park Service and served as the agency’s first director.

In 1923, Olmsted Jr. embarked on his mission to transform Bok Tower Gardens from a sand hill into one of the nation’s most beautiful garden sanctuaries. For the next five years, Olmsted Jr. and his team diligently planted a mix of native and exotic plants that would thrive in the humid climate and lend a tropical feel to the native oak hammock. Olmsted’s skillful use of ferns, palms, oaks, pines and other foliage creates a rich backdrop of green textures that frame the seasonal bursts of colorful blooms of camellias, azaleas, gardenias, magnolias and other perennials that came in later years to create an ever-changing work of art.

From a practical perspective, Olmsted also carefully selected plants that would provide a hearty supply of food and shelter for migrating birds and other wildlife in the Gardens.

The pathways leading up to the Singing Tower wind through the Olmsted historic landscape gardens. When visitors reach the top, a majestic view of the entire Tower is revealed in the Reflection Pool, showcasing one of Florida’s most photographed sites.

Edward Bok recruited famous artisans Milton B. Medary and Lee Lawrie to design a masterpiece that embodied the Gardens’ spirit of perfect unity, communicated through profound symbolism and represented in the unique Florida flavor. For example, the sculptures of the Tower convey a decidedly spiritual and nature theme through the use of majestic eagles and herons, as opposed to the gargoyles of traditional Gothic design.

Architect Milton B. Medary (1874-1929)
Bok commissioned fellow Philadelphian and architect Milton B. Medary to design and build the carillon Tower. A partner in the firm Zanzinger, Borie & Medary and president of the American Institute of Architects, Medary designed the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge and the Justice Department building in Washington, D.C. The Lake Wales project was an opportunity for Medary to adapt traditional Gothic design and incorporate the unique elements that represented Florida’s nature. His solution was an art deco and neo-Gothic tower built with a steel frame structure encased in beautiful coquina stone from St. Augustine, Florida, and pink and gray marble from Tate, Georgia. The Tower features sculpted finials, balconies, an arched entranceway and elaborately carved screens, friezes, tiles, metal work and sundial.

Sculptor Lee O. Lawrie (1877-1963)
Another first generation immigrant, Lee O. Lawrie, was selected to design the elaborate marble sculptures that adorn the Tower. Born in Rixdorf, Germany, Lawrie was a self-taught sculptor who earned a bachelor of fine arts from Yale and taught there until 1919. He received eight national architectural and sculptural awards and emerged as one of the nation’s foremost stone sculptors specializing in Gothic Revival themes. Some of his most famous works are the “Atlas” statue at Rockefeller Center in New York City and the famous sculpture of George Washington that stands in Cleveland Park in Washington, D.C. and the Nebraska State Capitol.

Lawrie’s series of Tower sculptures represent themes of nature, humanity, the Bible and philosophy. The sculptural details are mostly comprised of American birds and plants, along with depictions of a man sowing a garden, a man feeding cranes, Adam and Eve and the serpent. Upper balconies feature carved eagles with folded wings, and the panels depict doves carrying laurel or oak branches as symbols of peace, goodwill and strength. Besides various flowers and trees, there are cranes, herons, eagles, seahorses, jellyfish, fin fish, peacocks, pelicans, flamingos, geese, swans, fox, storks, tortoise, hares and baboons.

Metalworker Samuel Yellin (1885-1940)
Born in Galacia, Poland, Samuel Yellin studied art in Europe and moved to Philadelphia in 1906. He founded Samuel Yellin Metalworkers in 1909 and became a major figure in the early 20th century Arts movement and one of the most admired designers of decorative ironwork.

Specializing in Renaissance-style iron sculpture and design, Yellin’s works can be found at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City; Philadelphia’s Packard Building; numerous churches throughout the nation including Washington National Cathedral and on the campuses of America’s most prestigious universities including Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Harvard.

Bok enlisted Yellin, America’s premier metalworker, to create several elements to adorn the carillon Tower. Yellin designed the brass door and the wrought iron gates on the north side of the Tower. The great door depicts the Biblical story of creation, the Book of Genesis, starting with the creation of light and ending with Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden. The iron gates leading to the Tower were hand-wrought and feature birds with various expressions and wings for flight. Lawrie’s sundial on the south side of the Tower features a bronze snake, the ancient symbol of time as well as the 12 signs of the zodiac to mark the 12 months of the year and Roman numerals to mark the hours of the day. The gnomon casts a shadow on the dial face to indicate the time. At the bottom of the sundial are the words from President Calvin Coolidge’s speech, “dedicated and presented for visitation of the American people” that commemorate the 1929 dedication of the Gardens.

J. H. Dulles Allen
J. H. Dulles Allen, founder of Enfield Pottery and Tileworks, near Philadelphia, created the massive, intricate and colorful tile grilles that adorn the openings of the bell chamber allowing the sounds of the bells to fill the Gardens. Dulles Allen also designed the Tower and the tile floor of the Founder’s Room just inside the Tower. Through skillful craftsmanship of metal and tile, Dulles Allen transformed trees, birds, turtles and other plants and animals into a unique piece of art. The colorful tiles found only in the top third of the Tower depict the perfect balance between nature, species and gender. In addition to his work at the Gardens, Dulles Allen’s work can be seen at the Organization of American States building in Washington, D.C., and the Reynolda House (in the Museum of American Art) located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

John Taylor Bellfounders
John Taylor Bellfounders, Ltd. of Loughborough, England, cast the bells of Bok Tower Gardens’ famed carillon. The company has been making bells since the middle of the 14th century and remains today one of the largest bell foundries in the world.

Taylor’s five-tone principle of bell tuning produces a unique purity and sweetness of tone and allows the bell to sound with a fullness and mellowness that sets Taylor bells apart from all other cast bronze bells. The firm is the creator of the largest bell in Britain, which hangs in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Taylor bells also ring throughout the world at the Washington National Cathedral, the Chapel at Duke University in North Carolina; the City Hall in Cape Town, South Africa; and in Sydney and Canberra, Australia.

The Carillonneurs
With only 200 carillons in the United States, professional carillonneurs are an elite group. Bok Tower Gardens has had only four carillonneurs since 1928. The Gardens’ first carillonneur, Anton Brees, served from 1928 until 1967, the second, Milford Myhre, carillonneur emeritus, served from 1968 to retirement in 2004 after 36 years. In 1991, Terrance McKinney served as the Gardens’ first assistant and was succeeded by William De Turk in 1993.

De Turk was appointed director of carillon services effective July 1, 2004. A native of the Philadelphia area, he received a bachelor of music degree cum honore from Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, and a Master of Music degree from the University of Michigan. In 1974, he was the first carillon scholar at the Bok Singing Tower. De Turk was carillonneur (1981-87) for the University of Michigan and hosted the 1986 World Carillon Congress, the first held in North America. His activities in The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America (GCNA) include four years as president and archivist since 1972. He has performed recitals throughout the United States, Canada and Europe and received many honors including the Berkeley Medal from the University of California at Berkeley for distinguished service to the carillon. In August 2005, Lee Cobb was appointed assistant carillonneur and librarian of the Anton Brees Carillon Library. Cobb is an accomplished carillonneur as well as a commissioned and published composer.

Reciprocal Gifts of Appreciation
Edward Bok gave Bok Tower Gardens to America as a gift. That gesture has inspired others to offer special gifts to Mr. Bok to be used in the Gardens. The first gift was from his neighbors in Mountain Lake. They commissioned Lee Lawrie to create an Exedra, the Greek name for a semi-circular seating area, crafted from marble and decorated with distinctive carvings. It is located on the west side of the Sanctuary. Another gift was from Usaburo Tsujita of Japan, who for three years in the early 1920s was an attendant in the Bok family home. He went to Boston in 1925 to learn the shoe business before returning to Japan. Tsujita remained deeply dedicated to Mr. Bok’s ideal of universal peace and brotherhood. After World War II, Tsujita, a man of modest means, began a campaign to raise enough money to commission a nine-foot-tall Japanese memorial lantern. Tsujita sent the lantern to the Gardens in 1955 and requested that it be placed in sight of Bok’s grave so that in his words it could “be my living spirit and serve Mr. Bok forever at his side.”

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About Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens, located approximately 55 miles southwest of Orlando and 60 miles east of Tampa, near Lake Wales, Florida, is open every day of the year from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Visitor Center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults and $3 for ages 5-12. Members and children under 5 are admitted free. For more information, call 863-676-1408 or visit