Smile Politely

Honoring Chimesmaster Wood and the Altgeld Bell Tower

Stretching a century into the past and 132 feet into the air, the Altgeld Bell Tower anchors the picturesque impression of campus left in the minds of alumni and visitors. Indeed, polls show that when U of I alumni reminisce about their days here, the three things they are most likely to remember are the Alma Mater statue, the quad, and the Altgeld Bell Tower chiming every hour, providing an august soundtrack to the procession of students marching between classes. Occasionally you might hear the bells playing something unexpectedly recognizable, like a Beatles song, and look up in wonder. What’s up there? And who is ringing the bells?

Every weekday at 12:45 you can climb to meet and witness a performance by the woman who has kept the bells ringing for decades—Chimesmaster Sue Wood—a renowned virtuoso carillon player who sits beneath tons of bells (the largest is five feet in diameter) and, by manipulating levers, makes them sing. There is no F or D# and only 1.5 octaves, so, in addition to performing, she often must arrange and transpose music to an appropriate key. When she pushes a lever, a sixty-plus foot cable stretching up through the ceiling to the ancient pulleys far above moves a clapper to strike one of those magnificent bells, cast in Baltimore nearly a century ago. It’s an amazing experience to watch Wood work, manipulating that unwieldy chime at lightning speed, and an eye-opener for those of us who got degrees there and didn’t stick around to watch the credits and see who performed the soundtrack.

You can climb a six-story ladder a hundred feet above the quad—a dazzlingly frightening experience—and sit behind those fifteen bells (7.5 tons of music!), swamped in their deafening overtones, as they sing their song. When I last climbed up there, I requested of Wood that she play some Beatles and the “Internationale” (the communist anthem that would have gotten her blacklisted fifty years ago, but today nobody knows what it means). She didn’t disappoint. As intersession was in progress, she even let me bang out a not-too-shabby rendition of “Three Blind Mice” while she conducted.

Playing the chimes has been a labor of love since the first renowned architects designed Altgeld Hall. Over the years, bell tower operations were taken for granted, neglected, swept into a corner of the bureaucracy, and are now sort of a bastard operation on the org chart somewhere between the chancellor, CITES, the School of Music, the Physical Plant, and the Department of Mathematics.

Construction of Altgeld Hall began in 1896. Its “modern Romanesque” design, derived from medieval church architecture, was created by university architecture professors Nathan Ricker and James White. Originally the university library building, it next became the law building, and still bears that inscription carved in its stone nameplate. Now home to the Department of Mathematics, Altgeld Hall houses the stunning mathematics library. The building was given the name Altgeld Hall in 1941 in honor of John Altgeld, elected Illinois governor in 1892, who was motivated by a vision of a public university where Illinois citizens of modest means could seek higher education. With ornate columns, arched doorways, a rotunda, frescoes, wrought iron, and one of the university’s only gargoyles, the building is hauntingly distinguished, truly “old school.” In 1970 it was designated a historic treasure and added to the National Register of Historic Buildings.

The Altgeld Bell Tower was dedicated in 1920. The bells themselves were a gift of the classes of 1914 through 1921. The clock mechanism that strikes the hours with the familiar four-note “Westminster Chimes” melody was a gift of the class of 1922. Sue Wood has been playing the bells since 1971 and, with the help of a few students, performs a concert every weekday at 1 p.m. She became Chimesmaster in 1995 at the retirement of Albert E. Marien, who had held the position for 37 years.

From its Minnesota sandstone exterior to the tiled tip of its tower, including the heroic woman who unfailingly rocks the county’s most massive musical instrument five days a week, the Altgeld Bell Tower is a university tradition and a historic cornerstone of our entire community.

So what’s that erection south of the undergrad library? Why is the university building a second bell tower, one whose construction couldn’t wait for funding to provide a real carillon in keeping with the pride of Altgeld and the musical tradition it embodies (a tradition which the School of Music is apparently not interested in)? Such that instead the new bells will be rung by a cheesy digital device with pre-programmed song selections like a six-story greeting card? Such that now students walking between classes can suffer the dissonant cacophony of two incompatible bell towers, and have the headache that comes with being stuck between centuries? And, while I’m asking questions like these, why haven’t I been asked to sit in on kazoo with the Pacifica String Quartet?

The acquisition of a true carillon—a chromatic hand-played bell tower with twelve tones per octave and at least two octaves—was a long-standing dream of Sue’s predecessor Albert E. Marien. But why build a second tower instead of upgrading the estimable Altgeld? A pamphlet available at Altgeld entitled “The History of the University of Illinois Chime” explains that the Altgeld tower has room for thirty or more additional bells. It also states: “The chime is a cherished memory of beauty in the years following graduation like the tall and stately trees that once did and will again ‘canyon’ the broadwalk with its hundred of surging youth.” No doubt.

The McFarland Memorial Bell Tower is not popular. Architecture students who have blogged about the construction seem unanimous in their gag reflex: their professional opinion is that it’s an eyesore. Is this structure a slap in the face to Sue Wood, Altgeld, and the centuries-old tradition of the carillon? The best thing anybody can say is that it looks like the Tower of Sauron—I guess that makes the architectural style “modern Mordoresque”—and some pranksters reportedly even managed to climb the tower and install an eyeball.

According to the Daily Illini, renovating the Altgeld Bell Tower was not feasible, and the new tower is being built because Richard McFarland donated $1.5 million to build a tower in honor of his wife Sally (though some have claimed the total cost is closer to $10 million). Certainly, after eight years of an illiterate, incompetent presidency has wrecked education funding and led to skyrocketing tuition on top of what is finally acknowledged as a financial crisis (now that those who write the headlines are feeling their stock portfolios pinched), we all need to appease wealthy patrons more than ever. But, after seeing how the wonderful Sue Wood, hunched in a drafty room behind an unfinished attic space, has kept the university’s beat for decades, it’s hard not to feel mixed feelings at this showy use of dough. Mr. McFarland, can you help with my student loan?

More Articles