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:: By Josh Schonwald

:: Photo by Dan Dry

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Chicago Journal ::

Bells to toll better

For its 75th birthday, the world’s second-largest carillon will get a huge gift—a much-needed restoration. In August a team of carillon-restoration experts from the Royal Eijsbouts foundry in the Netherlands—one of only a half-dozen or so firms in the world that specialize in the field—climbed the Rockefeller Chapel tower and began dismantling the 58 upper bells of the 100-ton Laura Spelman Rockefeller Carillon to take to local storage.


Swan song: Wylie Crawford plays the bells before they’re removed for renovation.

Although carillon bells are designed to last for centuries, and many European carillons date back 400 years or more, the playing mechanism in Rockefeller’s carillon—built in 1932 in remembrance of John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s mother and presented as a gift to the University—has deteriorated over the years. The restoration is “long overdue,” said Wylie Crawford, MAT’70, the University’s carillonneur since the early 1970s. “I’m ecstatic.”

Problems have been especially noticeable in the third octave, Crawford said: “That’s a very busy octave.” The iron clappers, which strike the bell, have become flattened, he explained. “They’re not hitting the right strike point.”

Unlike other bells, carillon bells remain fixed while they are played. The clappers move instead, connected by wires and a tracker system to a playing console that controls both rhythm and dynamics. The console consists of a double row of oak keys and a pedal board, which the carillonneur plays using the fists and feet.

The Dutch firm will not only replace the clappers but also will incorporate a new design and better materials. The restoration will make the carillon a more responsive instrument, Crawford said, by improving the connection between the keyboard and the bells. Rockefeller’s carillon has 72 bells ranging from 10.5 pounds to 18.5 tons. The great bourdon, or bass bell, boasts a diameter of nearly ten feet.

In addition to the clapper restoration, the carillon’s playing console will be modified, the lower bell frame cleaned and repainted, the playing cabin replaced, and a new upper bell frame constructed above the new cabin. The University’s Facility Services will replace the playing cabin.

Crawford expects the bells to return to the tower in time for a June 2008 gala concert and celebration. In the meantime, even though the upper bells will be absent, the 14 big bells remain. So rest assured, Crawford said, “You’ll still hear the hour strike.”

The $1.4 million carillon work, financed in part by gifts, is part of a larger, multiyear chapel-renovation project, including the 2006 addition of the chapel basement’s Interreligious Center and the ongoing restoration of the E. M. Skinner organ and the building’s exterior. “With the scaffolding already up to restore the building’s exterior,” Crawford said, “it made sense to renovate the carillon now. Scaffolding itself is very expensive.”