A Carillon Resounds Over North Carolina State University

It took 100 years, but finally, after an extensive $6.5 million restoration, bells ring out over North Carolina State University. The century-long saga began in 1920 when the university conceived of a central bell tower to honor alumni lost in World War I. A year later, the cornerstone was laid. By the 1930s, the towering construction project designed by architect William Henry Deacy was nearly completed by the Works Progress Administration. 

Over 1,400 tons of granite sit on a 700-ton concrete base. Inside at the base of the tower, the aptly-appointed Shrine Room bears the names of the 34 fallen alumni and remains one of the campus’ most hallowed places. Additional elements were added in the 1940s, but by then, the nation had gone through the worst of the Great Depression. Money was scarce and the world was soon at war again. A set of magnificent bronze bells, planned from the beginning, just couldn’t be justified against that backdrop.

Memorial Belltower at NC State University

Memorial Belltower rises above Henry Square and the adjoining Hillsborough Street at North Carolina State University.

Sporadic success at fundraising by students, faculty, and alumni allowed for a temporary consolation: an electronic carillon system and speakers were installed at the top of the memorial tower, creating the illusion of a full set of bells. This was installed in the late 1940s and updated a handful of times over the course of the 20th century. Every half hour, a recording of bells, merely an imitation controlled from an adjacent building, would spill out over campus.

A gift brings momentum to the missing bells

In 2010, the idea to finally get bells into the tower was revived by then-student Matt Robbins, who organized a grassroots fundraising effort that began to gain traction. Enough money was raised to contribute five new bells to the tower. Then, in 2017, came a transformational, multi-million-dollar gift from Bill and Frances Henry. The influx of capital tipped the scales and ensured the bell tower completion and restoration project could advance.

The university tapped B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry to cast the carillon bells. Roughly 10 tons of additional framing support and bronze went into the tower between 2019 and 2021. During that time, the bell tower received a complete exterior cleaning and refurbishment, a redesigned Shrine Room, restored details, and an overhaul of the surrounding plaza. In the belfry, 55 new (and this time, very real) bells were hung. The roof of the tower was temporarily removed to accommodate the incoming bronze beauties.

Bells for NC State University Bell Tower

Image: A few of the newly cast bells patiently waiting to be hoisted into Memorial Belltower. Courtesy: North Carolina State University. 
As each bell was placed, bellmaker Ben Sunderlin would sound a brief note with the tap of a hammer, eliciting cheers from the gathering onlookers at ground level. While the pandemic kept the crowd apart, the energy and enthusiasm was palpable. Bell donors and honorees stood for quick photographs with their individual bells, before the crane would hoist them into the sky for placement in the tower.

Bell-less for a century, now the sound of real bells cascades into Henry Square and rolls down the adjoining Hillsborough Street. Carillonneur Tom Gurin was on hand for the inaugural concert. Climbing 124 stairs to the new playing cabin at clock level, his deft recital of classical and popular selections set the bells ringing in tintinnabulating delight.

Even if you don’t find yourself nearby, the bell-curious are invited to tour the newly reopened and dedicated North Carolina State University Memorial Belltower via an interactive digital experience that shines new light on the belfry, Shrine Room, plaza, and fascinating history of the bell tower. With 55 new bells, the bell tower continues to be a place of reflection and celebration for the university. Here’s to 100 more years of Wolfpack pride.

Cover image: Carillonneur Tom Gurin practices on the Memorial Belltower’s new 55-bell carillon during rehearsal for the grand reopening and dedication. Courtesy: North Carolina State University.