STEP BACK IN TIME AT EL RETIRO
Nestled in the heart of seven and one-half lush acres at Bok Tower Gardens is enchanting 20-room Mediterranean-style mansion that transports visitors back in time to the 1930s, a distinctive period in American history. Originally named “El Retiro,” meaning “retreat” in Spanish, the home was built for Charles Austin Buck, a Bethlehem Steel executive. To preserve this architectural, cultural, and historic landmark, El Retiro was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
Day after Thanksgiving – April 30:
10 a.m. to 4 p.m. – Tuesday through Sunday
Closed on Mondays
May 1 – Thanksgiving:
11 a.m. to 3 p.m. – Tuesday through Sunday
Closed on Mondays
Admission to El Retiro is $10 per adult ($5 children ages 6-17) and general admission to Bok Tower Gardens is required. Admission for Bok Tower Gardens members is $7.
Includes admission to El Retiro and general admission to Bok Tower Gardens.
IMPORTANT INFORMATION TOUR GUIDELINES
El Retiro has stairs leading to the second floor of the home and is not fully accessible by wheelchair or stroller. Due to the nature and design of the house, an elevator is not available. Admission must be purchased at the Entrance Gate or the Visitor Center before arriving at the home. Food and beverage inside the home is prohibited. Guides are available to answer questions about the home and its collections. For more information please contact us at 863.676.1408.
EL RETIRO HISTORY
Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. had designed Edward Bok’s Gardens and several private gardens inside Mountain Lake Estates, a neighboring private community. Charles Austin Buck engaged the Olmsted firm to design the landscape of his winter estate. In 1929, landscape architect William Lyman Phillips of the Olmsted firm began to design the gardens and the placement of the house. In 1930, architect Charles Wait was hired to design the house that has become one of the finest examples of Mediterranean-style architecture in the state of Florida. The Estate was the result of the collaborative inspiration of Buck, Wait, and Phillips.
As Buck was a lover of nature and an amateur horticulturist, the gardens were designed first and the house was positioned later to provide a natural flow from garden to house. The estate’s external landscape and ornamental touches were designed by Phillips, who later designed the world-famous Fairchild Tropical Garden in Coral Gables (Miami).
Phillips’ contributions to the Estate include several wonderful elements: a formal Mediterranean-style garden with a Spanish frog fountain that leads guests into an enchanting stone grotto at the front of the house; an Oriental moon gate fountain off the dining room porch; and an English-style country garden with a rolling lawn and a pond that reflects the afternoon sunsets.
Buck was a great admirer of the Latin lifestyle and architecture, and he wanted “El Retiro” to be reminiscent of it. Wait designed the 12,900 square foot Mediterranean-style home with many characteristics of an antique villa, complete with a barrel-tile roof, thick walls, substantial carved doors and woodwork, and intricately detailed wrought iron.
Wait also included a series of three large porches to provide Buck and his guests with uninterrupted views of the sweeping vistas and a wonderful view of the Tower. The team worked to situate the entire house so that fantastic views from the house were framed by the surrounding tall pine and live oak trees.
In an effort led by Nellie Lee Holt Bok, daughter-in-law of Gardens’ founder Edward W. Bok, the home was acquired in 1970. Famed restoration landscape architect, Rudy Favretti, was engaged along with a corps of volunteers to restore the home and preserve the historic destination.
The Buck Family
El Retiro, is a 12,900 sq ft Mediterranean Revival style mansion built as a winter retreat in the early 1930s for Charles Austin Buck, a Bethlehem Steel vice president. The estate was originally named “El Retiro,” meaning “retreat” in Spanish and was used by his family for six to twelve weeks out of the year. Who was Charles Austin Buck and what legacy did he and his family leave?
Charles Austin Buck (March 14, 1867 - July 13, 1945) was born in Bucksville, Pennsylvania to Alfred Nicholas Buck (December 28, 1825 - September 5, 1908) and Helena Buck (June 1, 1822 - January 27, 1895). The family moved to Bethlehem when Charles Austin was a small child. After graduating in 1887 with a B.S. degree in analytical chemistry from Lehigh University, where his father was superintendent of grounds, he joined Bethlehem Steel as an assistant chemist. Mr. Buck specialized in the development of raw materials, rising in the company while working at mines in Cuba and the United States. In 1913, he was appointed Vice President of Raw Materials, a title he held until 1940. He contributed greatly to procurement efforts in Chile, Venezuela, Cuba, and Mexico, as well as in Pennsylvania. Mr. Buck also became an influential lecturer at Lehigh University after being given an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree in 1932. He retired from Bethlehem Steel in 1942, leaving a legacy of vision and progressiveness on the iron and steel industries.
Mr. Buck married Josephine Martha Rankey (September 29, 1867 - January 7, 1925) on October 19, 1892. Josephine, the daughter of John Christian Rankey (August 2, 1830 - December 22, 1902) and Emma Burkhardt (September 25, 1839 - January 21, 1913) was raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where her father worked as a blacksmith and later a hotel proprietor. Throughout their marriage the Bucks welcomed nine children.
Photograph of the Buck family, circa 1910s. Top row: Josephine Buck, Leonard Buck, and Dorothy Buck. Center: Walter Buck, Josephine (Lucy) Buck, Charles Austin Buck, Richard Buck, and Clement Buck. Front: Robert Buck and Louis Buck.
The Bucks’ oldest child, Leonard Jerome Buck (September 29, 1893 - February 19, 1974), followed in his father’s footsteps and attended Lehigh University. He founded the Leonard J. Buck & Co., Inc. which specialized in importing/exporting manganese and other ores for the steel industry. He married Helen Baltzell Rouss (October 17, 1899 - October 8, 1997), the daughter of a New York merchant, in 1923. The couple had three children, Nancy Buck Payne (born February 8, 1924) and Josephine “Martha” Buck Bartlett (born 1926) and C. Austin Buck (November 26, 1929 - November 20, 2016). Leonard and Helen became famous for their talent for breeding dogs and harness racing horses and together they developed Allwood Stables. Leonard also loved gardening, and he worked with landscape architect Zenon Schreiber to develop a unique rock garden on his Far Hills, New Jersey estate. Helen donated the property to Somerset County in 1976, and today it is known as the Leonard J. Buck Garden.
The Bucks’ second child and oldest daughter, Dorothy M Buck O’Brien (February 6, 1895 - August 18, 1974), graduated from the Sacred Heart Convent (Eden Hall) at Torresdale in Philadelphia. She married Justin C. O’Brien (June 27, 1890 - June 13, 1957) in 1926 who owned a construction and real estate development business. O’Brien was the son of former New York State Supreme Court Justice Morgan J. O’Brien. The couple established themselves in New York City and had two daughters, Rosemary O’Brien Van Slyck (March 14, 1927 - December 4, 2007) and Patricia O’Brien Shaw (January 13, 1931 - 1994).
C. Austin and Josephine’s third child, C. Austin Buck, Jr. (April 1896 - August 19, 1901), died of whooping cough when he was a young boy.
Clement Rankey Buck (September 20, 1898 - September 10, 1929), the Bucks’ fourth child, attended the University of Virginia. An accomplished golfer, he represented the Saucon Valley Country Club at several tournaments throughout the country while in his twenties. Sadly, Clement died very suddenly of appendicitis complications in 1929 while living in New York City.
The only other daughter of the Bucks and their fifth child, Josephine “Lucy” Buck Fox (September 21, 1900 - April 24, 1994), married Edward “Ned” Jay Fox Jr. (April 13, 1899 - May 31, 1962), in 1926. Ned was a rising lawyer in the area and a native of Easton, Pennsylvania, where the couple settled. After her mother’s death, Lucy, along with Dorothy, often helped her father as a hostess, fulfilling many of the social duties thought to be solely women’s work during this time period. Having spent a good deal of time at El Retiro and helped her father throughout its planning. Lucy and Ned had three children, Cora Millicent “Millie” Fox Mailliard (born January 16, 1929), Josephine “Joy” Lucy Fox Reed (born September 1, 1932) and Dorothy Fox Elicker (born February 4, 1934). During the home's restoration in the late 1980s, Lucy provided valuable information and family memories, including home videos.
The Buck’s sixth child, Richard Joseph Buck (June 27, 1902 - July 9, 1981), graduated from Lehigh University before going on to study business at Harvard. He eventually became a successful investment broker headquartered in New York City, with his own firm, Richard J. Buck & Company. Richard married Rosamond Marie Farrell (December 14, 1902 - December 14, 1976), the daughter of US Steel President James A. Farrell, in 1930. Richard and Rosamond had six children, Rosamond Ferrell Buck Vernon (December 26, 1930 - March 7, 2012), James A. Farrell “Jim” Buck (November 28, 1931 - July 4, 2013), Richard Joseph Buck Jr., Mother Deborah Joseph Buck, Constance M. Buck and Barbara Buck Moss (August 31, 1934 - January 22, 1988). Like his father, Richard frequently conducted business in Latin America. He also found a love for gardens and incorporated them into his business, becoming well-known for the elaborate rooftop gardens he installed outside his Manhattan penthouse office.
Walter Stephen Buck (July 14, 1904 - October, 1965), like his father and older brothers Leonard and Richard, attended Lehigh University, graduating in 1928. The Bucks’ seventh child then studied law at the University of Pennsylvania and practiced as an attorney in Bethlehem before moving to New York City. He married Anne Twyman Spalding (September 9, 1909 - August 1, 1952), an Atlanta native and the daughter of shoe merchant William Francis Spalding, in 1941. Shortly after his marriage, Walter joined his brother Richard’s investment brokerage firm as a partner. Walter and Anne had two children, Elizabeth “Betsy” Buck Norman (born July 16, 1942) and Susan Buck Shaw Weise (born June 14, 1944). Anne passed away in 1952, and Walter remarried in 1953, to Kathleen Buckley (1910-1980).
Louis A. Buck (October 29, 1906 - January 6, 1998), the Bucks’ eighth child, continued two family traditions, competing and winning golf tournaments for the Saucon Valley Country Club like his brother Clement, and attending Lehigh University like his father and older brothers. However, he moved on from Lehigh and graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in business in 1932. Louis relocated to New York City and joined his brother Leonard’s ore sales business, eventually working up to the position of Vice President with the company. Louis married Dorothy Eleanor “Dolly” Van Daam Buck (1922 - 1999) and had one child, Beverly Buck (1950-1970), however Dorothy and Louis were estranged, and very little is known about their relationship.
Robert and Josephine engagement photo - October 13, 1940.
The youngest of the Buck children, Robert Oswald Buck (March 28, 1908 - April 1, 1950) also attended Lehigh and Rutgers Universities like his brother Louis. He enjoyed raising and training hunting dogs in his free time. In 1941, he married Josephine Anne Honeycutt (April 24, 1919 - June 25, 1995), the daughter of Bethlehem Steel’s Vice President of Sales, Jesse Honeycutt, and the young couple honeymooned at “El Retiro”. Josephine and Robert had four children, Robert O. Buck Jr. (born 1942), Peter J. Buck (born 1944), J. Stephen Buck (born 1947) and John J. Buck (born 1948). In 1943, Robert enlisted in the Army and served in World War II. He rose through the ranks to Sergeant and served in the Chemical Warfare division. After the war, Robert began working with his brother Richard’s investment firm. He died in 1950 of an automobile accident.
Mr. Buck’s Grandchildren and Great-Grandchildren have gone on to become movie producers, landscape architects, business men and politicians. Richard Joseph’s son, James “Jim” A. Ferrell Buck, became widely known as the first professional dog walker running the Jim Buck’s School for dogs for over 40 years and Leonard’s daughter,
Martha Buck Bartlett, was even friends with president John F. Kennedy and the first lady Jacqueline, and in fact served as godmother for JFK Jr.
Charles L. and Martha Bartlett stand as godparents at the baptism of John F. Kennedy Jr. This photo was featured in Life Magazine, December 19, 1960.