Washington’s Bells

Suspended above the streets of our capital, the history of our nation is written in bronze. We're compiling the fascinating histories, oral traditions, and lasting legacies of bells in D.C. If you know about one of Washington's bells, share your story with us!

1798 Hanshō

At the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum within the U.S. National Arboretum hangs a hanshō, or half-bell from a long-lost Japanese Buddhist temple and monastery. A gift of the National Bell Festival and installed on Jan. 1, 2024, the bell now graces the entrance to the Japanese Pavilion – home to priceless, centuries-old and artistically-formed trees.

Hanshō Presented to Commodore Matthew C. Perry

By the middle of the 19th century, imperialist factions within the United States government were clamoring for the opening of Japanese ports to American trade. Access to minerals and energy supplies, new markets for industrial goods, safe harbors for ships to replenish, and creeping notions of manifest destiny were propelling the Americans to challenge Japan’s 250-year-old policy of national seclusion. 

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter SPAR Bell

In 1944, while the major powers fought bitterly along Axis and Allied lines, the United States commissioned a new Iris class vessel from Marine Ironworks and Shipbuilding Corporation in Duluth, Minnesota. The ship was named to honor the women who served during World War II as members of the original U.S. Coast Guard Women Reserve, the S.P.A.R.S. – an acronym for the Coast Guard motto, "Semper Paratus. Always Ready."

Christ Church, Washington Parish

Long after U.S. Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe found solace in its Sunday services, Christ Church, Washington Parish stands on a little knoll as the descendant of the earliest structure in D.C. built to serve an ecclesiastical purpose. Straddled between Capitol Hill and Navy Yard, the Gothic Revival structure rises above the shade-dappled Federal and Victorian row houses of G Street Southeast. 

Silver Coachman Bell

Marjorie Merriweather Post, who ruled haute société for much of the 20th century from her sprawling estates in New York, Washington, and Palm Beach, chose to surround herself with the sumptuous luxuries of French and Russian nobility. At Hillwood Estate, Mrs. Post’s Washington address that’s now become a museum to her collections, she amassed exquisite works of Fabergé, Sèvres porcelain, French objet d'art, and paintings from the old masters. 

Bell from a Dressing Table Set

Atop every grande dame’s dressing table is oft to be found a set of necessaries, those elements of convenience that make her life more effortless and stylish. Marjorie Merriweather Post, who ruled haute société for much of the 20th century from her sprawling estates in New York, Washington, and Palm Beach, chose to surround herself with the sumptuous luxuries of French and Russian nobility. The same was true for her dressing room.

Miniature Tsar Bell

Within the sumptuous collections housed at Washington’s famed Hillwood Estate, a small desk bell speaks to grand inspiration and storied lineage. The bell, a miniature representation of the Brobdingnagian Tsar Bell in Moscow, is crafted in gilt bronze and was cast in Russia after 1836 as a single piece. An engraving indicates the location of the original’s broken fragment. 

The Smithsonian Bell

Some of the most striking buildings in the nation’s capital contain the art, history, and collections of the American people. Of these, perhaps none stand out from the neoclassical and Federal architecture of D.C. more than the Smithsonian Institution Building, colloquially called the Castle. Architect James Renwick, Jr. designed the Castle, abutting the great lawn of the National Mall, with a picturesque, Gothic Revival tower of Seneca red sandstone. It is a dramatic focal contrast to the surrounding buildings, but one the architect did not live to see fully realized.

Japanese American Memorial Bell

Hysteria and prejudice gripped nations on all continents during the bleak years of World War II, casting a long and dark shadow across humanity. It was a time when Americans, fighting against oppression and fanaticism, stood as standard-bearers for the inalienable rights of freedom, equality, and justice. But even when championing the greatest good, our steps faltered. 

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that sent 120,000 Americans with Japanese ancestry to internment camps. 

Bell of Peace and Harmony

Suspended like a ripe fruit within a hilltop pagoda, tucked into the rolling Virginia landscape, among the rich tapestry of foliage and flower at the Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, just beyond Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, a bell hangs. But this is no ordinary bell. Its prominence, scale, symbolism, and craftsmanship announce this as a bell of distinction.

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