The Baker-Berry Library Bell Tower: Tradition for the Taking

by Aidan Chisholm | 9/10/18 9:00am

Of all the wisdom imparted during my freshman orientation week, one suggestion resonated most. This wisdom was offered up during the Twilight Ceremony by a student on the eve of her senior year who stood in the BEMA, short for Big Empty Meeting Area before the corralled Class of 2021. She spoke of time at Dartmouth — how jam-packed schedules rendered the days short, how a 10-week term can feel like a single month and how lucky we were to be on the cusp of four entire years in this magical place. Her advice? Simple and concrete: each day, when the “Alma Mater” rings from the Baker-Berry Library Bell Tower at 6:00 p.m. each evening, pause and listen. Be present for those 30 seconds. Look up from the textbook in Blobby or from the phone in your hand as you cross the Green toward the Collis Center for dinner. Take a second, even glance up to the bell tower, and allow yourself to remember that you are here.

The Baker Bell Tower, erected in 1928, is arguably the focal point on campus. The landmark is based on Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and is the tallest point on campus, rising 124 feet above the main library. The tower houses 16 bells that ring each day on the hour and half-hour. The bells also play songs three times a day, including the ritual ringing of the “Alma Mater” at 6:00 p.m. Although the bells were initially operated using paper scrolls with patterned holes, the system was computerized in 1979.

The Bell Tower underwent its first significant renovation a mere two years ago. Patrick O’Hern , the capital renewal program manager who oversaw the project, explained the necessity of updating the tower — in accordance with the original construction — to ensure its longevity.

“This was a project that was identified a few years before construction when we were painting the tower,” O’Hern said. “Painters up close expressed some concerns about the woodwork and the longevity of the tower.”

The four-month renovation consisted of replacing the copper roof, introducing a digital operating system for the clocks and bells, restoring the weathervane, clock numbers and hands, and updating the lighting to be more energy efficient while better accentuating the structure’s exterior.

According to O’Hern, “[The updated lighting] was one of the more dramatic changes.”

The project emphasized commitment to the historic design while also focusing on durability.

“We wanted to really stay true to the original construction,” said O’Hern. “It’s going to last another 90 years.

To preserve the integrity of the tower, the College sought expert help.

“The architect was well versed in historical preservation, as well as a contractor who was very familiar with these types of towers all over New England,” O’Hern said. “The architect really had attention to detail in putting things back to the way they’ve been.”

Although the construction lasted only four months — finishing by the 2016 Homecoming to ensure that returning alumni and students would experience the annual bonfire with its all-important backdrop — a nylon scrim with images of the tower was mounted on the scaffolding during the renovation.

“We felt like it is such a part of Hanover, that if we could [use a scrim] even for a few months it would have an impact on the community,” said O’Hern.

While the renovation period updated exterior and structural components of the tower, the bells themselves remained unchanged. The tower’s landmark status comes not only from the notable façade, but from the bells themselves. The harmony of the 16 bells, which reaches even the far corners of the campus, ties students from our century to those from the last.

“The way the bells sound today is more than likely the way they sounded 85, 90 years ago,” said O’Hern.

Current students find their own reasons to appreciate the bells.

“I love hearing the ‘Alma Mater’ everyday at 6:00 p.m.,” Lily Clark ’20 said. “I think that’s like the coolest thing. I remember when I was living in the Choates, and it made it feel more like home with the traditional things.”

Katie Bernardez ’20 echoed this appreciation of the sounds of the “Alma Mater” playing each evening. She noted her frequent failure to notice the shorter daytime jingles, explaining that the familiar melody at 6 p.m. is hard to overlook.

While Clark and Bernardez are comforted and moved by the ritual, they likely have no idea that the bells today are controlled by a compact, tablet-like system, allowing the melodies to be operated remotely. Music and computer science professor Michael Casey, along with graduate students in the master of arts in digital music program, now manage the technology and control the bells.

O’Hern spoke to the College’s ability to both preserve history and evolve technologically.

“There’s just a really small bell-controller,” O’Hern said. “It’s really like an iPad that takes the place of all of the gigantic equipment from before.”

O’Hern did explain that remnants of historical methods persist: the music rolls used until 1979 are preserved in the control room, alongside the internet-operated contemporary device.

In addition to the music sheets, the walls of the tower also preserve the records of students who have quite literally made their mark.

“One of the questions that came up when we started the renovations was what are you going to do with all that graffiti on the inside of the tower,” O’Hern explained. “[We] said, we aren’t going to touch it. We are going to leave what previous classes and previous people have done.”

The interior walls of the tower retain overlaid signatures and notes from students and returning alumni who have sought to personalize this landmark. As I followed O’Hern into the highest reaches of the tower, I was struck by the pervasive sense of both history and loyalty as I noted “Bob Garrety ’56” in scrolling cursive, right next to “Carr ’03” — all on the same panel as a heart, inside of which was inscribed, “Mary ‘Lou’ + Goel ’68.”

Not even O’Hern is inured to the views that sprawl beyond the white tower with its wood-housed bells. Slowing in his speech, my guide seemed to be imparting the most important message of the afternoon when he said, “You know, you go up in the tower and the views you have are tremendous.”

Today, tower tours and reunions enable visitors to ascend the landmark eight times each year during “big weekends.” Students, alumni and families witness the stunning buildings of campus, along with the varicolored hills of the two states that surround it, all from the balcony. Bernardez toured the tower during Winter Carnival on her way to complete the polar bear plunge, another Dartmouth tradition. Although the quintessential vision of collegiate New England might conjure blazing fall colors, Bernardez underscored the magic of Hanover’s more notorious season.

“I think the coolest part was that it was winter so there was snow everywhere, and it was just really beautiful and clean,” Bernardez said. “It was cool to see the rest of campus from a different perspective and be so high up.”

Less obvious than the visual presence of the tower is the fact that students and members of the community can request songs to be played on the bells by simply emailing bells@dartmouth.edu . Lily Clark and her twin sister Lizzie Clark ’20 requested “Happy Birthday” to play in celebration of their friend Nick.

“We brought a group of friends out on the Green,” Lily Clark explained. “At 10, they started playing, and Nick was so happy. It was so cool.”

“I think it’s cool that Dartmouth [lets students request songs], and that it’s so easy,” Lizzie Clark said. “I think that more people should do it.”

Students can choose from a database of songs that have already been programmed, or they can request new songs that are then adapted for the bells. The extensive database encompasses hits from each decade, ranging from Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” to Smash Mouth’s “All Star.”

Returning to my room after my meeting with O’Hern, I settled in at my desk and found myself zooming in on images I had taken of the graffitied tower walls. Moving over rafters and uprights, I came across an unexpected inscription: “Bill Chisholm ’91 + Kimberly Ford ’91” — my parents.