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Hitting A High Note

It’s been 100 years coming. And now, just when we all need to hear some good news, it’s time to get ready to listen to music from the Belltower.

Written by Sylvia Adcock ’81 | Photography by John Hansen

When the architect who designed the Belltower was hired in 1920, he specified that a carillon of at least 10 bells should fill the belfry, with more to be added over time. That didn’t happen. Instead, the construction of the Belltower took place in fits and starts over several decades. Its full height of 115 feet was not reached until 1937. Even then, the top of the tower was empty. And in all its time as a beacon on campus, nothing more lyrical than an ordinary set of speakers was ever visible through the columns of the belfry. Until now.

Last summer, the final chapter of the tower’s story was written when workers installed a set of 55 bronze bells, handcrafted in a traditional bell foundry using centuries-old methods. The granite tower got a facelift, too — a graceful staircase inside now replaces the rickety ladder that was once bolted to the wall. Water-damaged stone was repaired. Rusty clockworks were replaced. The Shrine Room, where the names of those alumni who died in World War I are inscribed, has been renovated, with the original tablet restored. Just below the clock, a playing cabin has been constructed, complete with a console where a carillioneur will be able to pick out tunes using levers and pedals. In a voice as old as time, bells like these have been used for centuries to mark the hours and to call communities together.

This spring, NC State’s campus will finally hear these bells ring out. All we can say is, let ’em ring. It’s about time.

The Belltower’s top is made of copper. The top had to be removed to lower in the largest bells.
A view of campus from inside the tower through one of its eight oblong windows.
Seen from below, this staircase leads to the playing cabin which is located near the top of the tower under the belfry. An HVAC system has been installed, too. (The carillonneur will be able to play even on a hot summer day.)
Rows of bronze bells are ready to ring. The bells are tuned by shaving away some of the metal from the inside until the right tone is achieved; that’s why the inner portion of each bell is shiny and the outside is dull.
The Class of 2010 raised money to purchase the first and largest bell. It weighs in at over 1,800 pounds, and the name of every class member who donated is inscribed on the bell.
Lit from within, the tower stands proudly over Raleigh. Seen from the Hillsborough Street roundabout, Holladay Hall is on the left, and to the right is the Aloft Hotel. In the distance the towers of D.H. Hill Jr. Library are visible. In addition to the interior lights, new outside lighting will make sure we can still light the tower red on special days.
All of the 55 bells in the carillon were cast at the B.A. Sunderlin BellFoundry in Ruther Glen, Va. The foundry uses traditional methods that include pouring molten bronze into molds fashioned from loam (a mixture of clay, hair and manure).
The words “Henry Family” inscribed on the outside of several bells pay tribute to Bill Henry ’81 and his wife, Frances, of Gastonia, N.C. The Henry family’s gift made the entire project — from refurbishing the tower to casting the bells — possible.

This story appears in the winter 2020 issue of NC State magazine. Members receive the award-winning publication in their mailboxes every quarter.