Central Florida’s Polk County:
Elegant, Classic, and Timeless
by Kay Harwell Fernandez

Central Florida’s Polk County is full of surprises. Even though I have family connections — my grandparents lived there in the 1950s — I had not paid a thorough visit to the area in a long time. And, I was pleasantly surprised.

The largest town in Polk County, Lakeland, is only 30-45 minutes from Orlando. It reminds me of Old Florida with a comfortable small-town feel; it's not blighted by highrises or wall-to-wall traffic.

Lake Mirror anchors the downtown area of Lakeland — one of many lovely lakes that dot the area. A grand staircase connects Lake Mirror Park to Hollis Gardens. The neoclassically-designed gardens inspired by similar gardens in Florence, Italy, contain some 10,000 flowers and ornamental shrubs. Here, you can also see Florida’s history chronicled in horticulture.

Lakeland remains a walkable city full of antique shops and historic buildings such as City Hall, built in the 1920s.

A stop at the Historic Polk Theatre takes you back to yesteryear. Dedicated in 1928, Polk Theatre served as a vaudeville and movie palace. The architect, originally from Italy, recreated an amazing Mediterranean village in the theater. Flanked by Italianate walls with sconces, niches and faux balconies and windows, your eye is drawn toward the stage.

After its heyday, and by the 1980s, concerned citizens banded together to save the Polk Theatre. But restoration wasn’t completed until 1999. A 1927 pipe organ was rescued and renovated, and made its way to a debut at the Polk Theatre in 2002. Today, the Polk is a viable performing arts center, and also worth a visit to see the all the intricate design work.

Also near downtown, the Polk Museum of Art houses a permanent collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, seven other galleries and an outdoor sculpture garden. Galleries showcase Japanese prints and ceramics, African-American art, and a large American and European collection of 20th century and contemporary art. Every two to three months, special exhibits rotate such as a wonderful photography exhibit that I viewed.

This year marks the Seventh Annual Florida Outdoor Sculpture Competition, a joint project of the Polk Museum of Art and the Cities of Lakeland and Winter Haven. Twenty new sculptures are now displayed on the Lemon Street Promenade in Lakeland and the Central Park area of Winter Haven. They remain on display through February of 2008 when a new competition begins.

You’ll see such creative and innovative works as dragonflies, an oversized pair of grazing animals, a school of fish, a horse, a human figure made out of letters of the alphabet, a figure holding a yoga pose and several abstract pieces. Artists utilize stainless steel, painted and sealed wood, granite, aluminum, welded metal, cast iron, reinforced concrete and glass. Such creativity!

I needed a reminder of what a remarkable legacy Frank Lloyd Wright left at Lakeland’s Florida Southern College. The famed architect designed 18 buildings for the liberal arts college, and 12 of those were built. The first three structures were constructed with student labor. The chapel is the tallest, as the others are low to allow a view of Lake Hollingsworth.

Covered walkways — Esplanades — connect all but one of Wright’s buildings. A master of controlling space and light, Wright died in 1959, a year after the last Esplanade was completed. This architecture collection received a National Register of Historic Places designation in the mid-1970s.

Just outside Lakeland, I discovered a different kind of history at the Florida Air Museum at Sun ‘n Fun. Actually, I found out that the museum is the Sunshine State’s official aviation museum and education center.

Established 20 years ago, the Florida Air Museum houses more than 35 aircraft and thousands of historic artifacts that pay homage to 100 years of flight. You’ll see Charles Lindbergh memorabilia and an amazing array of factory-built, home-built, kit-built and ultra-light aircraft and helicopters. One of the most impressive collections is that of entrepreneur, innovator, and aviator Howard Hughes. This archival collection contains never-before-seen memorabilia of Hughes’ aviation career during the 1930s and 1940s, which includes models of the Spruce Goose, Hughes’ personal flight suits, medals and hundreds of items.

I’m not a flying ace, but my appreciation and interest in aviation history also took me to Fantasy of Flight in nearby Polk City. About 20 minutes southwest of Disney World, this aviation attraction has 40 rare and vintage airplanes that have been restored to flyable condition. Aerobatics competitor and aircraft designer Kermit Weeks founded Fantasy of Flight, where you can fly for real in a biplane — either a 1942 Boeing Stearman PT-17 or a 1929 New Standard D-25. If you prefer less zoom, you can always go for a three-hour hot air balloon ride and soar over Central Florida.

Most people who have either visited or lived in Florida for a while know about Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven. Long before Disney and other attractions came to the area, Cypress Gardens is and always has been a Florida institution. My grandfather was good friends with Dick Pope whose vision led to the opening of Cypress Gardens back in 1936.

All these years, the lush beauty of the historic botanical gardens and grounds has been the backdrop to the world renowned water ski shows, leisurely boat rides and Southern Belles.

Cypress Gardens wears the banner of being the birthplace of performance water skiing. In 1943, Julie Pope organized a water ski show for visiting servicemen using her son Dick, Jr., daughter Adrienne, and their friends as performers. The creative Julie Pope was also behind another park treasure — the Southern Belles. After the park experienced its first freeze in 1940, Mrs. Pope noticed drooping flame vines at the entrance. She asked one of the female staffers to don a hoop-skirted antebellum dress to stand in front of the damaged vines and greet guests. Thus, another Cypress Gardens tradition was born and continues today.

Unfortunately, following 9/11, attendance was so low that the park closed in 2003. However, new owners blended the popular past with fresh attractions, and Cypress Gardens Adventure Park reopened in 2005.

I had not been to neighboring Lake Wales in a very long time. Here was another surprise. The historic downtown is quaint and charming. Perhaps those words are overused but they seem to fit the bill. You can stroll the streets, browse in the specialty shops, or stop in a café for a bite.

On the outskirts of town, Lake Wales Art Center is definitely worth a visit. Dating from 1927, the building itself lingers as an architectural treasure. Originally a catholic church, the “mission style” architecture borrowed from Roman, Byzantine, and Renaissance details. The Lake Wales Art Council purchased the structure in 1989 and opened the art center in 1991. In 1990, the building was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

In addition to art exhibitions that feature Florida artists and a permanent collection of Central and South American artifacts, the center serves as an educational facility. A variety of performances are on tap throughout the year, ranging from classical and Broadway music to dance.

Lake Wales is also home to Historic Bok Santuary. Here, well-known Ladies Home Journal editor, Pulitzer Prize winning author, and philanthropist Edward Bok created a bird sanctuary and gardens that he gave to the American people. In 1929 President Calvin Coolidge dedicated this Mountain Lake Sanctuary and Singing Tower, now a National Historic Landmark.

With one of the world’s great carillons, the 205-foot Gothic and art deco, marble and coquina stone tower serves as the centerpiece. The 60-bell carillon plays concerts twice daily and during several special events.

Boasting more than 1,000 plant types, the gardens were designed as a meditative woodland landscape and nature preserve. This sanctuary sits atop the Lake Wales Ridge, 298 above sea level. During ancient times when ocean levels were much higher, a chain of islands was formed. The upland habitat of the ridge lays claim to numerous rare plants that aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

By the way, Polk County was named for James K. Polk, the 11th president of the US. With a history rich in citrus, cattle ranching and phosphate mining, the county holds one of the biggest areas of farmland in the Sunshine State, as well as 554 freshwater lakes.

For “must sees” in Polk County, click on this link

For more information:
Central Florida Visitors & Convention Bureau



Mapquest map of Polk County