The Most Beautiful Spot in America – Part 1

Published in May 1929 for The Ladies’ Home Journal, Edward Bok’s article entitled The Most Beautiful Spot in America provides a first-hand account of his vision taking shape and is a fascinating window to Bok Tower Gardens’ history.

The Most Beautiful Spot in America

And it is nothing short of a marvel it should be so when it is remembered that six years ago, when the work of irrigating and planting was begun, it was simply a barren sandhill, with nothing to help the landscape architect except the two or three hundred native pine trees and its eminence as the highest spot of land in Florida – 324 feet high. “But that gives me a clean slate to work upon,” said Mr. Olmsted, and forthwith he began. For the first year, he mothing but dig trenches and lay water pipes in every part of the Sanctuary, for the question of water is the greatest question of Florida. Mr. Olmsted knew this, for he had laid out Mountain Lake Park, of which the Sanctuary and the Singing Tower are the center, and he proposed to transfer thousands of shrubs and trees from the lowlands of Florida to this elevated spot, and, once planted, that meant water and plenty of it. The planting was done very closely since we all counted on the maximum loss of 20 percent. The result so far has been a loss of less than one percent, because of the care everything planted has received and the water has given each plant.

To see the Sanctuary now in its rich dark green verdure, Northerners, not knowing the facts, have estimated a growth of fifteen years. That is why I decided upon Florid as my base of operations. No state in the union gives the planter such a reward for his efforts. Nor such a sylvan setting. By a purchase of forty-eight acres across from the Sanctuary and the Tower are protected from any of the noises caused by automobiles. Nor is this likely to change. The character of the place is fixed; the growth of the future will add more residence, but no industrial plants or factories, it is likely, will ever mar the quiet and repose of the Sanctuary or the Tower.

A Place of Quiet Repose
My friends in the North were surprised at my selection of Florida. “No one will ever come to see it,” they said. The results have, as I knew they would, shown otherwise. Ever since the Sanctuary was opened we have not had a single week-day attendance of less than a thousand visitors. The Northern people sometimes forget that Florida is growing tremendously not only in its native population but in the number of winter tourists from every part of the country. It is not a case of “no one coming to see it,” but of how efficiently to handle the motors of those who come. It has become already a Mecca to those who live in or visit Florida.

It was all a dream of years when Mr. Olmsted began, and I was not at all certain that it could be realized. After five years of work, Mr. Olmsted proved to me not only that my dream could realized, but he was bringing it to the realization and in a magnificent manner. I now began to think of the second part, the Singing Tower, and bought the rest of the mountain, as it is called in Florida. Then I asked Milton B. Medary, the Philadelphia architect, to realize that part of my dream for me. He asked me what I wanted. “The most beautiful tower in the world,” I answered modestly. “Do you know the tower at Malines, Belgium?” he asked. I said I did. “Do you expect me to beat that?” he inquired. I told him I did. He said that was not a commission; it was a challenge. But he took it up and began to make sketches, which for six months he continued to do so. That became what the visitor sees today – certainly the most beautiful tower in America, if not in the world. Construction was begun in January 1927; in February 1929 it was practically completed.

Meanwhile, I had gone over the field of bells and readily found that a carillon of the size and weight I wanted could not be made in America. I cast my eyes toward England, and there I found the firm capable of casting what I desired – seventy-one perfectly tuned bells. It took fifteen months to make these, and when finished I asked a jury of three famous musicians to go to England and pass upon their tone and quality. They did so, with the result that they pronounced the carillon to be the most perfectly tuned bells they had ever heard, and as each of the three was a foreigner, they had heard the bells of the world! The Tower rose to its majestic height of two hundred and five feet, the equivalent of a twenty-story city skyscraper, and its beauty of Georgia pink marble and Florida coquina stone began to unfold.

With the Tower three-quarters completed, the bells arrived on a steamer direct from Liverpool to Jacksonville, and then began the tremendous work of transferring the seventy-one bells, weighing from seventeen pounds to the largest weighing twelve tons, or 24,000 pounds. But the Tower itself weighs 5500 tons, and so is capable of maintaining such a weight of bells. No trucks could hold such a weight, the wooden bridges along the roads from Jacksonville to Mountain Lake could not bear the burden, and so it all finally ended by the railroad leading to Mountain Lake building new flat freight cars, each with a double flooring, and a special train was made up, and the trip was made with a cordon of police and railroad employees on the cars, and the enormous and valuable weight arrived at Lake Wales, the nearest railroad station. There, enormous electric cranes hoisted the bells to especially strong trucks, and so efficiently did the Tower constructors work that within four weeks each bell hung suspended in its permanent place, the conclusion of the work being heralded by each workman striking a bell and producing a jangle nerve-racking to the adjoining countryside.

Meanwhile, the planting in the sanctuary had grown and was growing prodigiously, so that in five years it resembled a planting of fifteen to twenty years’ growth in the North.

Part Two will be published July 12, 2021