Nestled between Tampa and Orlando is an 83-year-old garden that attracts people from Florida and around the world. Originally a gift to the American people by Dutch immigrant Edward Bok, Bok Tower Gardens includes nearly 50 acres of gardens and a neo-Gothic Singing Tower.
A National Historic Landmark, the well-manicured Bok Tower Gardens is the handiwork of Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., a famous landscape architect known for his work to preserve natural lands. “It still has the same magic of the design that it had 80 years ago,” says Bok Tower Gardens President David Price. “Some of that is due in part to our management, but a lot of that is a strong design element.”
Bok Tower Gardens now owns or controls about 600 acres, some with trails and natural Florida habitat; while some citrus groves are being converted to the native longleaf pine forest. Visitors experience Florida from a bygone era at the gardens’ Pine Ridge Nature Preserve, a longleaf pine-turkey oak habitat, which is home to endangered species like the gopher tortoise and the eastern indigo snake. They also can tour the Mediterranean-style Pinewood Estate of C. Austin Buck, vice president of Bethlehem Steel.
Although longtime Ladies Home Journal Editor Edward Bok originally wanted to create a bird sanctuary, Bok Tower Gardens now also is being recognized nationally for preserving rare plants. “Florida has an incredible number of rare species found nowhere else,” Price observes.
Rising as high as 298 feet above sea level, the gardens are one of the highest points in peninsular Florida, resulting in spectacular sunrises and sunsets and superb views of the flat Kissimmee and Peace river valleys. The Singing Tower has become not only a symbol of Bok Tower Gardens, but Lake Wales and Polk County as well. Designed by Philadelphia architect Milton Medary, the tower was inspired by European towers and churches. It features a famous 60-bell carillon, a musical instrument with bells played through a keyboard. Visitors can hear the carillon twice a day at 1 and 3 p.m.
Today a photo of that tower, taken by Winter Haven photographer Richard V. Pezzimenti 15 years ago, virtually has become the Bok Tower Gardens icon. “It’s probably one of the finest photographs taken of the tower. It has the right mix of clouds and blue sky,” says Price. “It almost looks like a painting.”
The photo, originally taken with a large-format film camera, captured first prize for the southeastern United States in the National Historic Landmark Photo Contest in 2009. It also won the Polk County ADDY (Imperial Polk Advertising Federation) Gold Award in 2000 for a billboard campaign, “Quality Time Billboard” submitted by Clark Nikdel Advertising in Winter Haven.
“That was taken in the zenith of the summer,” recalls Pezzimenti, a Stamford, Connecticut, native. Swans were lured to their place with help from garden employees, who fed them. “We wanted to get the swans. They were like our models that day,” he says.
Pezzimenti’s photos are on display at the Blue Palmetto Café and other areas of Bok Tower Gardens. Pezzimenti enjoys arriving at Bok Tower Gardens before sunrise to take photographs in heavy fog, or snap pictures of flowers just beginning to open. “One thing about Bok Tower, it’s almost like getting a massage. It’s just so relaxing to walk around,” he says. “You’re walking around and it feels like you’re in heaven. It’s gorgeous.”
He sees a variety of wildlife, including cardinals and blue jays, green herons, fox squirrels, pileated woodpeckers, and indigo snakes. “They’re very tame. They will come up and look at you,” he says.
A versatile photographer, Pezzimenti shoots portrait and commercial images in digital format. He specializes in High Dynamic Range (HDR), a technique that uses software to render the best highlights and shadows from photographs shot at various camera settings. “It gives such tremendous detail,” Pezzimenti explains. “The final end product is pretty dramatic.”
His work is known for its intense colors in a very contemporary or very classical style, sometimes almost reminiscent of the Renaissance with ethereal facial expressions. He shoots digital photos and edits them on his computer, even changing heads on a person if necessary to match their body language. He likes the instant feedback of digital photography. Instead of having to develop the film to know what the pictures look like, now he can tell at a glance what he captured.
Pezzimenti went to Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, to initially study dentistry. “I just couldn’t stand the blood and the smell (of my first chosen profession),” he says. But his inherent eye for photography soon became apparent when he received his first camera as a gift from a relative.
So, he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, then continued his studies at the Rhode Island School of Photography. He also earned a master’s degree from the Professional Photographers of America.
Formerly the Winter Haven News Chief head photographer, Pezzimenti runs a studio in downtown Winter Haven. Photos like the one he took of Bok Tower, and the one he took of citrus groves basked in an orange-red glow at sunrise in Clermont, capture the natural landscape and beauty of the Sunshine State.
Cassie Jacoby, a former Bok Tower Gardens communications director conveys, “Few photographers have captured the essence of Bok Tower Gardens as well as Richard V. Pezzimenti,” and there are even fewer places in Florida that better depict our diverse wildlife and our agricultural roots than this historic landmark.
text by CHERYL ROGERS
photographs by RICK PEZZIMENTI