The Character of Harkness Tower

By Tritia Yamasaki SY '96 on Jan 1, 1996


Harkness Tower was born amid the tumult of war. The crash of cannons, stuttering of artillery fire, and hoarse cries of battle filled the air of a foreign continent where Yale men were wresting an idealized freedom from the enemy. It was against this backdrop of World War I that the dedication of the cornerstone for the Memorial Quadrangle took place on a dreary October day in 1917, exactly 200 years after the first stone for the first Yale building was interred. It was from this stone that Harkness Tower and arose; a blend of unique architecture and statuary. And it was within the Tower that the carillon was assembled; the mechanism by which the Tower now floods the campus with a bright rush of sound, the pealing of bells. The architectural construction and musical nature of Harkness Tower make it a singular embodiment of Yale tradition, past and present.

The Construction 

The construction of the Tower began in 1917. A monetary donation by Anna M. Harkness, in memory of her son, Charles William Harkness, class of 1883, made the extensive construction of the Memorial Quadrangle possible. The Quadrangle, meant as a dedication to Yale history, includes all structures within present-day Branford and Saybrook Colleges.

The head architect, James Gamble Rogers, a veteran of Yale academic life (class of 1889) was commissioned for the job. His vision demanded perfection; the search for stone of the proper character spanned quarries in a 75-mile radius, suggestions from sites across the United States, and places in war-racked France. However, the final choice came from Plymouth, in Massachusetts, the birth state of Charles Harkness himself. The granite chosen was a harmonious mix of red, gray, and golden-brown. The darkest, most rough-cut stones were placed at the bottom of the square base but the color lightened and the masonry became more elegant at the upper reaches. As a result, the tower is a pleasant blend of contradictions: the substantial, immobile foundation contrasts with the fine, intricate tracery near the crown.

The Gothic architecture of the Tower received its inspiration from Saint Botolph's Tower in Boston, England. Elements of a tower at Saint Giles in Wrexham, Wales were also incorporated: it is in St. Giles that Eli Yale lies in eternal slumber. Yet the Tower is not merely a pale replica, but rather, a vigorous structure steeped in the best of Yale tradition; "the very icon of Yale" (Freedman). An intricately-wrought iron gate and a stone arch on either side of the Tower door preserve the atmosphere of an earlier age. Graven in curling script, the words: "Whereat We All Rejoyce" surmount this sole entrance to the Tower. Overhead, a black iron lantern hangs suspended by a chain from the vaulted ceiling of the passageway. Plastic candles now light the way in place of their wax ancestors.

The overall architecture and masonry of the Tower are unique. The square foundation of the Tower stretches up to two-thirds of the total 216-foot height. It supports an octagonal midrift, known as a lantern, and a smaller octagonal top. This type of tower, known as couronne, was one of the first to be built in America, and the only one to be built in modern times. Halfway up, on each of the four sides of the Tower, copper clockfaces, dyed mint-green by the harsh New Haven weather, gaze in each direction. Although they are not perfectly synchronous, they are functional. The hands march silently on their circular journeys; the hour is heralded in the stentorian tones of Westminster Chimes played four times daily and resonating from deep within the Tower.

Flanking the clockfaces, a series of eight-foot tall statues stand pondering the state of the modern world. A stern-faced Elihu Yale frowns at the Old Campus. To his left, scholarly Jonathan Edwards, gazes down an aquiline nose upon the Yale of today . These two are joined by Nathan Hale, Noah Webster, James Fenimore Cooper, John C. Calhoun, Samuel F.B. Morse, and Eli Whitney. Taken together, these notables comprise a level of Yale "worthies." If the eye ascends a bit farther up the square foundation , statues of talented and learned men of the Greek world--Phidias, Euclid, Aristotle, and Homer--come into view.

Another tier of statues perches precariously near the top of the square part of the Tower. There are three figures at each of the four corners: Order, Effort, Prosperity, Justice, Truth, Freedom, Courage, Life, Progress, War, Death, and Peace. These abstract representations are interspersed with four more: Medicine, Business, the Law, and the Church, personified. These last four are symbolic of the fields to which Yale students were traditionally called.

A stark reminder of the wartime years, soldiers of four different conflicts are represented farther up the side of the Tower. The Revolutionary soldier crouches to load his flintlock, the sailor of the War of 1812 stands barefoot and armed with his cu tlass, the veteran of the Civil War of the 1860s looks down into Branford Court, and the soldier of World War I stands at attention and stares out from under his trench helmet with sad eyes. Directly above the soldiers, four hideous, yet gleefully mischievious caricatures symbolize the four classes of Yale students: freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior. These gargoyles lean out on long, thin bodies parallel to the ground. Leering, they eye the occasional passerby on the streets and courtyards below. Hidden bulldogs and the faces of Shakespeare, Virgil, Homer, and Dante all have their own private niches on the Tower's surface.

Lee Lawrie, a professor at Yale from 1908-1918, was the head of sculpture for the Tower. His more famous works include sculpted figures at Westpoint Chapel, St. Thomas and St. Vincent Ferrers churches, and the Atlas figure of Rockefeller Center. Each statue is carved in patient, artistic detail attesting to the years of work he and his fellows invested. A small figure cowers at the feet of a beneficient lady of Law. One of the abstractions holds an eagle under one arm, wears sandals, and whether by intent or not, sports only half an arm in the best Greek-statue tradition. The students are decked in the bowties and the rounded hats of the 1920s. Curiously, features of the statues are not visible to the observer from the ground, and neither are they readily accessible from within the Tower. It can only be guessed that their function lies in the realm of special talismans which, by their very presence, give the Tower its singular character.

Finally, in 1921, the last of the serrated spires was hoisted up to the octagonal crown. Four years after its inception (with only a brief wartime hiatus in 1918), construction of the Tower, as well as the surrounding Quadrangle, reached its conclusion . However, the work was far from over. With the completion of one project, the architects had yet another task before them, one which would confer a greater individuality to the empty, silent Tower: the installation of the bells.

Installation of the First Bells 

The bells started out as a small set of ten, collectively known as the Harkness Memorial Chimes. They were cast in 1921 by the John Taylor Bellfoundry in Loughborough, England and they glided across the Atlantic on a ship, the Hombleton Grange. Upon docking in Boston on April 21, 1922, they were transported to New Haven by railroad and paraded around town via oxcart, with the proper amount of pomp and ceremony. Installation proceeded by means of an electric hoist attached to huge metal rings in the ceiling of the Tower's lantern. These rings reside there still, forgotten, in their thick coats of rust.

The installation of the 28-ton chime set did not end with the mounting of the bells; the clappers had to be made and placed correctly. This proved to be something of a problem. Each clapper, weighing in excess of 500 pounds, was first positioned at the center of each bell. This meant that in order to sound the bell, the clapper had to traverse the distance between the bell's center and its lip; a distance of over a foot. This technical difficulty was overcome by means of a counterweight system, but the outcome lacked the delicate musical ring the bell founders had hoped for. Rather, each sounding resulted in a raucous clang of metal sounding to a distance of four miles. Much to the distress of the Branford master, this trial shattered several windows in the immediate vicinity. After several ingenious, yet unsuccessful attempts to rectify the situation (including wooden clappers, leather covers over the clappers, and even glass windows to the Tower) a simple solution was reached: the clappers were repositioned to within two and a half inches of the bell rim. This produced a ring audible at three-fourths of a mile, to the relief of the Branford College students and administration alike.

Beginning of the Guild 

The bells were first rung by Bellfounder John Taylor on June 9, 1922. The Curator of Organs, Samuel H. Smith, took over the job for the next 24 years. Upon his retirement in 1946, he was replaced by a student, Elliot H. Kone (Class of '49). The job of the bell-ringer proved to be a formidible task for one student. It involved four rings a day: a morning Chapel, a noon Midday, an evening Vespers, and a late night Curfew ring. To ensure a continuation of the tradition, Kone organized a student organization called the Guild of Yale Bellringers in 1949. The Guild was and is a self-perpetuating organization; every year, aspiring bell-ringers are trained by the Guild and new members are selected.

Installation of the Carillon 

In 1964, a donation by Florence S. Marcy Crofut set in motion the forges of the John Taylor Bellfoundry once again. In preparation, a practice carillon was installed which produced a soft xylophone-like ring. This allowed new members to gain a level of proficiency in private rather than subjecting the entire campus to a slew of painful and faltering renditions. The addition of 44 new bells brought with it a new title for the instrument; upon passing the 20-bell mark, the chimes graduated to the official carillon level.

The actual installation of these bells proved difficult. Rooms and spiraling stone staircases within the Tower were already in place, so the only recourse lay in hoisting the bells half-way up the outside of the Tower. Several of the old bells were removed and lowered to the ground while a new metal framework was laid directly over the carillon room. Considering the collective 43-ton weight of the bells, this was an incredible feat.

Today, the bells hang suspended in attentive and transient silence above the carillon room. Massive iron beams form a skeletal network around four tiers of bells. After ascending a few turns of a rickety spiral staircase, it is possible to scrutinize the bells directly. Once the deep burnished brown of newly casted iron, the bells now sport green and red tinges, their testimony of age. They range in size from huge brooding giants tethered by five bolts the length and thickness of a forearm to small cups reminiscent of the handbells shaken by goodwill Santas on street corners. A round, black clapper waits near the smooth inner surface of each bell and a discolored splotch marks the spot where each note originates. Emblazoned in proud relief on each bell are the words, "FOR GOD, FOR COUNTRY, AND FOR YALE," as well as the dates, "1964" and "1921," times when patriotism and school spirit were more than the mere whispers of today. In addition, the largest bell, the bourdon, bears the inscription: "In Memory of Charles W. Harkness, Class of 1883, Yale College."

For some, the phrase ringing the bells conjures up images of Belgian youngsters in suspenders vigorously pulling and being pulled by ropes attached to washtub bells. Fortunately, the carillon mechanism is a bit more precise. In structure and mechanism, the carillon is a distant cousin to the piano and organ. Its frame is of burnished wood. A long wooden bench fronts a six and a half foot long wooden console where 54 worn oaken levers called "batons" protrude in place of the ivory keys which would grace a piano. Each baton is an approximate six inches long and one inch in diameter. It lies at the top of a four inch well and a slight downward force will send it bobbing down, then back up, as if it were subject to a new sort of buoyant force.

What is a Carillonneur? 

A person who plays the carillon (known as a carillonneur) sits on the bench, forms a loose fist, and pushes downward until the desired baton is partly depressed. Then, with a decisive snap of the wrist, he sends the baton to the bottom of its well. A row of rectangular wooden pedals with thin rubber covers lurks near the base of the carillon. They are sounded in the same manner by the balls of the feet. Once the carillonneur releases them, the pedals and batons spring back to the tops of the wells. 

The Mechanism of the Carillon 

A carillonneur in action is a sight like no other. In some cases, the hapless carillonneur must slide across the bench to hit notes on different parts of the keyboard. Lower notes require more force to sound than higher ones since clapper size and weight vary as does the strength to move them (which must be translated through depression of the batons). So it is not uncommon to see the carillonneur lean into the batons which sound the larger bells, but gently tap those which sound the smaller ones. A quick succession of notes will most surely be accompanied by flying fists or feet. The carillonneur must often move all limbs in separate directions simultaneously, an action which results in a peculiar rhythm, a graceful dance.

Delicate steel rods connect to each baton and pedal, then stretch skyward through individual holes in the metal roof. These shining metal veins run upward in parallel formation and each terminates at its own metal lever. The lever, in turn, grips a cylindrical rod. At the command of the carillonneur, the baton shoots downward, eliciting a corresponding dive from the wire and its attached lever. With a smooth rotation, the metal cylinder transforms the downward pull of the steel thread into an upward pull on the clapper. Metal strikes metal. . . a note is born!

The peals of the bells can dramatically alter the character of the Harkness Tower. One minute, it is stern and austere, issuing a melancholy, brooding nocturne. The next, it is light and cheerful, as the crystal melody of a Mozart sonatina fills the air. A minute later, it is gravely patriotic, as the discordant crash of chords accompanying a fervent rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" echoes from the heights.

The Beauty of Harkness and the Carillon 

From the top of Harkness Tower, the whole of Yale is laid out in miniature. Curiously, the notes heard up here are faint and light--they choose to fly outward in a rippling circle of sound, rather than blaze a path heavenward. Down on the campus, everywhere, there is motion. Birds, no larger than specks of wind-blown fluff, wing across the lawn. People stride or trundle down ribbons of stone sidewalk. Others sit motionless or clump in groups on the verdant rectangle that is Old Campus. Three horizons are touched by a seemingly endless expanse of forest land, and the fourth is an ever-shifting surface of the great Atlantic. The colleges are neat patchworks of timeless stone and next to their gothic elegance, apartment buildings squat in sullen silence. A cylindrical tank in the distance winks in a brilliant flash of silver. And out on the highway, a continuous line of shining metal parades; the inexorable flow of Progress. Yet Harkness Tower stands, a child of the present and a monument to a glorious past.