The Origins of The Singing Tower

The eldest son of Edward Bok, William Curtis Bok served as a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice, and like his father was a philanthropist and writer. On March 6, 1961, Curtis booked penned this message and titled it The Origin of the Singing Tower to share with the American Foundation Board of Directors responsible for the Mountain Lake Sanctuary that would eventually become Bok Tower Gardens.

March 6, 1961

Over the last twenty-five years of his life, Edward Bok suffered from acute indigestion. He lived for months on crackers and milk and most of the time was in considerable pain. He often spent the dawn hours looking out of the window and thinking, while the pain ran its course.

After his retirement and settlement at Mountain Lake, it was during one of these nocturnal periods of discomfort that he conceived the idea of buying the top of Iron Mountain and making a bird sanctuary of it. He did this and employed Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the country’s greatest landscape architect, to make a garden at the top of the hill. He bought about fifty acres.

As the work progressed, Mr. Bok used to sit and watch it, and as it neared completion he didn’t think that the water tank, which stood in the middle of the property, to supply Mountain Lake Corporation’s colony with water, was very prepossessing. It stood in the middle of the Sanctuary and didn’t add to the surroundings he had in mind for it. One thing led to another and the idea finally occurred to him to put a bell tower in place of the water tank. He had been born in the Netherlands and the idea of the single bell tower so familiar to Europeans was natural enough to him.

The colony’s water tank was put underground and plans for a tower, two hundred and five feet high, were drawn. The description of the tower and the list of those who took part in its construction can be found elsewhere, but the purpose of the present memorandum is to give the original reason and purpose for building the tower in the first place.

Mr. Bok’s mind went rapidly from the conception of a bird sanctuary to a place of beauty for human beings as well. The American public had given him his chance to succeed and he had grasped it and now wanted in some way to say thank you. The final development of this idea was to have the President of the United States, then Calvin Coolidge, dedicate the Tower and Sanctuary to the American people for visitation. This left the title privately in the hands of the American Foundation, which Mr. Bok incorporated in 1924, but charged with the public’s right to visit.

Mr. Bok has expressed to Mrs. Efrem Zimbalist, his widow, and to me, his son, and has written in various of his books what he intended the Sanctuary and Tower to mean. It was not built as a theater, or as a church, or as a forum, or as a platform. There have been many attempts to use it for such purposes, by the State of Florida, Polk County, by the town of Lake Wales, and by private conventions and industries that want to make their appearance in the Sanctuary a highlight of the current celebration, whatever it might be. Orators and evangelists have also wanted to make personal appearances and, in the very beginning, during his lifetime, Mr. Bok rejected such a request from Billy Sunday, who was the leading evangelist of the teens and twenties.

The purpose of the property, as Mr. Bok has himself expressed it, was to be a place of repose for the human spirit, as well for birds, and was not to be used for shows or demonstrations, either sacred or profane. He wanted the public to come, and he wanted to spread before them a show of great natural beauty and the music of the bells, as well as the inspiration of the great tower in which they hung. People might visit for as long as they pleased and find such peace and comfort as they could in their own way, and then go again without being talked to, or influenced, or made an audience of. There is no doubt in the minds of those who remember Mr. Bok that it was his central and abiding purpose.

There has also been some misconception about the nature of the Tower, which has been given credit for being a memorial or an enormous headstone. Mr. Bok’s grave lies in front of the brass door to the tower, between it and the moat, and it may be natural that people consider that he erected the Tower and the surrounding Sanctuary as a memorial to himself. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He had no idea of being buried there until his wife asked him if he should like to lie there. She made this inquiry when the Tower was about half completed. The idea startled him at first but he liked it and happily assented. It was therefore her suggestion and not his own idea.

Actually, Mr. Bok dedicated the Sanctuary in which the Tower stands to his grandparents. In “The Americanization of Edward Bok,” published in 1920, there appears at the beginning a story of two persons, his grandfather and grandmother, who, he relates, were sent by the Dutch government to the Island of Texel and made many improvements there. These two people had thirteen children, and as they went out into the world their mother said to them: “Make you the world a bit more beautiful and better because you have been in it.”

In 1922, Edward Bok created the Sanctuary and in the same year wrote an epilogue to his “Two Persons” that was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. I am convinced that the Sanctuary and the Tower, which occurred to my father after this epilogue was written, together represent his wish to carry out his grandmother’s precept about making the world better or more beautiful, and also negatives the idea that the Tower was intended as a memorial to himself. In his ‘Personal Forward’ on page 7 of the Sanctuary booklet, he says that the creation of the Sanctuary and Tower gave him a wonderful opportunity to carry out his grandmother’s admonition and that this is the basis on which they rest. The introduction to “Two Persons” says of the Epilogue: “It describes what he regards as the continuation of the work of his grandfather, and a fulfillment of the message of his grandmother, to whose memory the Sanctuary on the Florida Mountain is dedicated by their grandson.”

This Epilogue also appears, a little amplified, in “Twice Thirty,” Scribner’s, 1925, pp. 403-409.

My mother, Edward Bok’s widow, has told me that she approves this statement.

Curtis Bok