Bok Tower Gardens in Florida is celebrating the opening of its brand new Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden – part of the park’s largest expansion project in its 87 year history.
“I don’t like bright plastic, ” admits President, David Price. “I believe children should be given places to experience that are of fine materials and fine design.”
A Botany graduate from Clemson University and an accomplished wildlife sculptor in both stone and bronze, he believes children are often aesthetically patronised in public spaces.
David Price (pictured left at the opening celebrations) spoke to Blooloop about Hammock Hollow and the new garden developments that are transforming a park visit into a meaningful guest experience.
Edward W. Bok – A Man on a Mission
Bok Tower Gardens is both a National Historic Landmark and a centre for conservation. It is one of 39 institutions that participate in the Center for Plant Conservation (CPC) which was set up to preserve the USA’s rare native plants.
It has its own seed storage facility and maintains around 64 rare plant species native to Florida in 60 endangered planting beds. Visitors can view 30 of these rare species in the Endangered Plant Garden.
Price joined the Gardens in 1987 and it has held him in thrall ever since:
“When I came here I thought I’d give it a go for five years, ” he laughs. “I was Director of Horticulture for 20 years, and for the last nine years have been President.”
It is the mission of the Bok Tower’s founder, Edward Bok, which Price finds so compelling.
Bok, a Dutch-born philanthropist and advocate for social change, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who used his position as editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal to educate, uplift and seek social change.
Bok Tower Gardens -a Meditative Place
Keen to live by his grandmother’s advice to ‘make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it’, he established a $100, 000 peace prize after the First World War.
He went on to create Bok Tower Gardens as a meditative place – a bird sanctuary with a strong musical component where people could escape a world that was, he said in 1928, ‘becoming so electrified.’
“Edward Bok challenged garden clubs to become societies for social change rather than just social groups, ” explains Price. “When he retired, he came to Florida, and fell in love with the bird life and nature, and decided to buy some land that was slated to become part of the Mountain Lake development; a country club.
“Instead, he hired Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. to design a garden of peace and repose, that would first and foremost be a bird sanctuary, and then a quiet place for the public to enjoy.”
He died in 1930, the year after the gardens were built, but his son took up the cause of world peace, and that vision still informs the gardens today.
A Towering Achievement
After overseeing the planting and establishment of the gardens, Bok commissioned architect Milton B. Medary to build ‘the most beautiful tower in the world’ and for it to reflect nature.
“Edward Bok was really keen on hiring the best for the projects he was working on, and then turning them loose, letting them have full rein.
“The design that Medary built was a neo-gothic tower with art deco adornments, and all aspects of that design are influenced by nature.”
Recalling the Dutch carillons of his early childhood, Bok wanted his tower to ‘sing’, too.
After an extensive search, he chose the John Taylor & Co Bellfoundry in Loughborough, England (which is still making bells today) to design and build a 60-bell carillon, with bells ranging from 16 pounds in weight to nearly 12 tons. At the time, it was the heaviest carillon in America.
“The carillon has been well maintained over the years, and is still recognised as one of the finest in the world. This is partly thanks to its peaceful location, where the carillon can be heard clearly throughout the garden rather than being lost in the noise of a city.”
Growing Revenue Streams
Of course, maintaining the bells, the tower and the gardens comes at a price. Of the $6million annual budget, around half goes on staffing.
“We have our gate attendance, then we have rentals for weddings, and other room rentals, ” he says.
“Our special events involve a lot more staffing and out-of-pocket costs, but we do have quite a few sponsorships for those events, so that is a revenue source.
“We also have grants, both federal state and county, and an endowment set up by Edward Bok, which at one time covered 100% of our costs. By 1987 it was closer to 70%, and now, with increasing expenses and the fact the endowment has not grown as fast as it once did, it covers about 36% of our expenses now.”
“We have costs for maintaining historic structures, we have a library, the carillon, and our recent expansion: we’re looking at staying relevant in terms of broadening our audiences, at getting younger families here.”
Currently, the majority of people who visit the Bok Tower Gardens are retired and are travelling; although this should change with the opening of Hammock Hollow and the other new areas.
“We have quite a few folks from out of state: about 60% of our visitation is further than 100 miles from here, and we have a lot of international visitors from the UK, Brazil, Canada, Germany, ” says Price.
“We have about 5700 local people, within 50 miles, who have memberships here and visit a number of times throughout the year either for a walk in the garden or to attend our special events.
“We have concerts, cooking classes, and are doing a lot more with education now in terms of horticultural education, but also about art and culinary art.”
“One of my priorities when I became President was to look at the visitor experience, ” says Price. “The experience is the only thing people have to take away from here.
“The park’s design has got ‘good bones’, we’ve got good planting, and the gardens will evolve over the years. My vision for the future is to have richer experiences for people, so people can come here, feel comfortable, relax.
“I would like to see more diversity both in terms of demographics and the age of our visitors, but also to reach out to under-privileged sectors of our society and to offer more.”
“We have a share of a gift programme where we offer free admission to the underprivileged and we have free days – I would like to see more of that.”
Married to a folk musician, Price would like to see a richer diversity of music in the gardens:
“More jazz, for example. We are doing a concert series now where every concert is sold out. We’ve done some outdoor concerts, but at the moment they are a little more difficult – we’ll have 2500 people attending, but the out-of-pocket costs for these concerts are higher.
“So, I’d like to work out a better business plan for our concert series, and maybe seek some funding and have more sponsorships so we can reach a broader audience in the community.”
Cultivating a Master Plan
This is all part of the Bok Tower and Gardens’ master plan that was developed in 2011.
“I think the challenge is, first and foremost, to understand what the mission was, or is, of the gardens. We have a really strong Board who embrace that mission, and it has been helpful for us to have continuity of staff, and to understand what it is that people are yearning for these days.”
A study had already been carried out back in 1957 looking at the gardens in minute detail and developing recommendations that were presented to the Bok family at the time.
“When we were undertaking the master plan, we found this study and started reading it, and were pleasantly surprised that the same things they were saying in 1957 were what we were talking about doing in our current master plan.
“Basically, that was to tell more of our history, more about Edward Bok as a man and his inspiration to the public, getting much more involved with conservation, and looking at adopting younger audiences.”
Embracing the Visitor Experience
Realising this vision led to the biggest development in the Bok Tower and Gardens’ history. A host of new garden areas have been created including the Pollinator Garden, the Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden, the Wild Garden, and the Outdoor Kitchen & Edible Garden as well as an educational space – the Alexander Discovery Centre.
“We started looking at people’s interests, ” explains Price. “There’s a real strong interest in food, and plants as food. Our entry road is a mile and a half long, and passes through groves of citrus trees, so we’ve always had a tie to agriculture but have never really embraced it as part of the visitor experience.
“It felt like the right time to explore that interest by planting an edible garden. Along with that come the culinary arts, so we put in an outdoor kitchen where folks can sit out in a nice shaded area. We’ll have culinary classes, potentially food sales in the garden, and it’s right next to the children’s garden, so will be a place where families can come.”
Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden
The children’s garden, Hammock Hollow, has been created as a place where children can learn through play in a setting inspired by nature.
“Being an artist myself, I am very keen on finding artists to work in the children’s garden, ” says Price.
He believes there is a tendency for children to be aesthetically patronised in public spaces.
“It’s sad, ” says Price. “When I was a child, my parents took me to museums and gardens; I lived in Spain for a while, and I saw some of the really old buildings. Then, we lived in Charleston, South Carolina [founded in 1670], so I was always surrounded by old buildings and craftsmen, and it really inspired me as a child.”
“I believe children should be given the best, and they should be given places to experience that are of fine materials and fine design. I don’t like bright plastic, and I don’t like primary colours. I think kids really respond to stone and wood and steel done in a whimsical way – playful, but dignified.”
For the Bok Tower project, Price chose to employ a consultant from North Carolina State University. Robin Moore, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Director of the Natural Learning Initiative, had done extensive research on children’s nature play, and ‘environments that recognise human dependence on the natural world’.
“We took his ideas, and Thomas Wolz, the landscape architect we had hired to do a first phase of the master plan, took those idea and turned them into garden designs for the children’s garden.”
COST of Wisconsin
Thomas Woltz, the owner of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, did the planning and implementation of new designs for the whole first phase of the Bok Tower Gardens master plan: the edible garden, the kitchen, the children’s garden, and the eco-system gardens.
“COST of Wisconsin, the contractors who did the rockwork, took that design and built it, ” explains Price. “There is a lot of artificial rockwork, built to look like limestone. They also built a giant sculpture of a snake surrounding a play sandbox, and then we had a mosaic artist by the name of Kevin Carman who made a stone mosaic on the snake.”
Atlanta native Kevin Carman, a multi-media artist, also created a large mosaic at the entrance to the gardens as well as a series of panel mosaics throughout using nature as a theme.
Sowing the Seeds of Inspiration at Bok Tower
“One of my first memories of being in a garden and seeing sculpture was when my parents took me to Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina, the largest outdoor collection of figurative sculpture in the US, ” recalls Price.
“I remember, at five years old, standing in front of those sculptures, thinking: I want to work in a garden like this. I never really thought about that as a young man making career decisions until one day, at about 35 years old, someone said: ‘Why do you do what you do? You’re a sculptor, and you work in a garden.’
“And, I rewound my life back to the point of me standing there in Brookgreen Gardens. But, if someone had asked my parents at that time, ‘Is your son affected by this cultural place?’ they would probably have said, ‘Well, no: he’s off playing at whatever’.
“We don’t know how we’re affecting children, ” says Price. “I liken it to planting a seed. A seed has to germinate; it has to grow.
“It may be 20, 30 years before that seed bears fruit.”
Images kind courtesy Bok Tower Gardens/Chad Baumer. David Price image kind courtesy Emily Plank Photography