The Architecture of the Emancipation Bells

An exquisite set of finely-tuned bells deserves a belfry that protects the bells within, augments the aural experience, and accommodates ongoing bell care and management. Bells are also rung by people, so a belfry must facilitate the bell ringers in their art. For the Emancipation Bells, we demanded even more from the structure. We wanted a space that was built for the community, made to be welcoming to all, and singularly designed to celebrate the work of abolitionism. 

A design takes shape

After researching and interviewing dozens of local architecture firms, the Emancipation Bells Campaign Cabinet selected O’Brien & Keane out of Arlington, Virginia, to design our space in the New Formalism style. The resulting structure, born from the collaboration, features two belfries surrounded by an amphitheater, performing arts space, and gardens.

Rendering of the Emancipation Bells by O’Brien & Keane Architects

Image: A sketched rendering of the Emancipation Bells structure by O’Brien & Keane Architects.

Nestled on a wooded knoll, the structure shelters, engages, and inspires. Arches of cast stone constitute the ruling motif of the design and frame the ornamented grilles that protect the bells within. The eye is drawn up and across, elongating the height of the structure and uplifting the spirit. Distinct spaces, bridged together, take the form of a triumphal arch. Those spaces include:

  1. Carillon Bell Chamber, housing the 51 carillon bells named after Black abolitionists and the Freedom Seekers bell.
  2. Carillonist and Clavier Room, where a musician (much like an organist) will create chords, harmonies, and melodies on the instrument – sending elegant tunes wafting across the area. 
  3. The Great Emancipator, a large single bell that will toll 4x annually on dates significant to the Emancipation Proclamation: the date the Proclamation was announced, the date it was signed, D.C. Emancipation Day, and Juneteenth.
  4. Observation Deck
  5. Peal Bell Chamber, housing the 10 swinging ‘Ring of Allies’ peal bells. 
  6. Change Ringing Room, where a team of ringers will sound the peal bells by pulling ropes at set intervals. 
  7. Performing Arts Space to host performances, lectures, outdoor classes, and even special occasions like weddings.
  8. Community Amphitheater, designed to seat hundreds of friends and neighbors for performances and events.

The concert-grade grand carillon of 52 bells across four octaves will join the family of carillons in the District (Washington National Cathedral, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Netherlands Carillon, et al.) as the first of its kind east of the Anacostia River at a scale that’s more approachable and accessible to audience and artists alike. 

Standing in commemoration of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and with each of the bells named in honor of an abolitionist who worked to end slavery in America, the bells will keep the voices of abolitionists and the spirit of freedom alive and ringing.

What did we choose the New Formalism architectural style?

New Formalism is an architectural style the emerged in the United States during the mid-1950s and gained prominence in the 1960s. It was a reaction to the strict modernist buildings of the time, returning to many classical elements like columns, symmetrical elevations, and highly stylized architectural elements. 

The style was adopted for many high-profile cultural, institutional, and civic buildings, and featured rich materials showcased in elegant simplicity, a re-embrace of colonnades and arches, delicate detailing, and a formal landscape.

New Formalism was a highly considered and intentional stylistic choice for the Emancipation Bells Campaign Cabinet with three distinct purposes: to complement the classical architecture of Washington, D.C., and achieve a modern monumentality; to connect us through the language of architecture to celebrated performing arts venues including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; and to evoke the ongoing march of civil rights that flowered concurrently with this architectural movement in the mid-20th century.

Image: Construction in the late 1960s of an eponymous “living memorial” to the late president, designed in the New Formalism architectural style. Courtesy: John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Meet the architects: O’Brien & Keane

O’Brien & Keane is a full-service architecture firm based in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. With more than 20 years of experience in building design, interior design, and land planning services across a broad spectrum of clients, the firm seamlessly melds elements of verticality, transcendence, focus, and hierarchy in educational and spiritual built environments.

With each project, O’Brien & Keane creates spaces that make a definitive statement, while reflecting the timeless heritage of traditional architecture. Their work demonstrates stewardship of the environment and sustainable practices in every design, while applying the latest building science and technology to deliver practical, affordable, and durable solutions.

Image: James Henry O'Brien, AIA, NCARB, president of O’Brien & Keane, selects amber-toned marble for a project. Courtesy: O’Brien & Keane Architects.