Chiming Away: Discovering The History of The Memorial Bell Tower

Students all over campus hear the chimes of the Memorial Bell Tower as its melodies float overhead every Friday at 5:00 p.m. Standing on the corner of Salem and Main Street, the tower is a well-known landmark in the Town of Andover.

Erected in 1923 in memory of Andover alumni who died fighting in World War I, the 159-feet tower was built on an old militia training ground. Samuel L. Fuller, Class of 1894, donated 75,000 dollars – about one million dollars today, adjusted for inflation – for its construction.

Although the Board of Trustees had previously agreed not to build on the location due to its historical significances, the Trustees deemed the field fitting for the monument in 1922. The tower replaced a flagpole that had previously stood at the location.

The tower’s exterior originally consisted of a steel frame encased in brick. After extensive water and rust damage made climbing up the tower too treacherous, the school began a campaign in 2005 to fund its restoration. In 2006, a 5.15-million dollar renovation updated the structure and exterior of the building, also covering the cost of cleaning and replacing some of the bells.

The Memorial Bell Tower was built in 1922 and was renovated in 2006.

“It got to a point where it was basically too dangerous to let people in there, and they realized they had to rebuild it. And because it was a war memorial, they weren’t going to just raze the building, they were going to rebuild it. So now it’s been rebuilt from the bottom up,” said Carl Johnson, W.B. Clift Head Music Librarian, in an interview with The Phillipian.

The tower was originally intended to house only a series of chimes, used solely to alert students of the hour. In 1926, a carillon was installed instead. Unlike a standard set of bells, a carillon is played like an organ, with a musician using their hands to play a keyboard instead of pulling on ropes, allowing them to play complex melodies.

The carillon is powered by an Apollo computer, a machine dating back to 1980, that has the capacity of storing around 100 two-minute long songs. The Apollo computer enables the carillon to play songs automatically throughout the week. Johnson compared programming the Apollo to programming a V.C.R. or an alarm clock.

“It’s like an alarm clock, in the way that you have to program it, so it’s very tedious. It’s on military time, and this one [time] I programmed the bells to play at 3:00 in the afternoon and I made a mistake and put 3:00 a.m. instead so I heard about that very quickly. Now, whenever I have to make any change, say to play chimes or a few tunes for an event, I have to make sure I’m playing it at 3:00 in the afternoon and not in the morning,” said Johnson.

The chimes can also be played manually. Initially built with 23 bells, the Andover carillon now consists of 44, many of which were cast and shipped from the Netherlands. Prior to the renovation, the chimes were operated by a carillonneur, someone who plays a carillon by manually ringing the bells. Due to safety regulations, however, the chimes can now be played from a keyboard on the bottom floor.

“[The carillon] still has touch sensitivity, it still is musical, but it’s lacking subtlety, that’s all. An analogy might be if you connected an electronic keyboard to a piano and had some series of levers activating the hammers on the piano, but you aren’t actually in the room,” said Johnson.

Over the years, the tower has had a multitude of carillonneurs. In 1951, Fuller founded an annual scholarship for a musically-gifted Senior “who has demonstrated high character and special musical aptitude,” according to the scholarship’s charter. Students who were granted the scholarship were also given the responsibility of playing the carillon at least five times a week for the entirety of the year. Now, however, the carillon is left largely unplayed by students.

“It plays automatically, just like the thing you might hear on Friday afternoons, or Mondays and Tuesdays, it plays a series of notes, but that’s just like a mechanical music box,” said Johnson.

A selection of the melodies played by the Bell Tower are available on Andover’s SoundCloud under a playlist called Memorial Bell Tower. The Memorial Bell Tower ringtone is also available for download on the Andover website for iOS and Android devices.