We Came, We Saw, We…Concurred

For the first time in decades, a light has shone in the old bell tower at Georgetown Lutheran Church. Why? You might recall the National Bell Festival is working to refurbish the historic bell at Washington’s oldest Lutheran congregation, which this year is celebrating its 250th anniversary. We simply love the idea of restoring the impressive bell to its full resounding glory. Researching its past has proven continuously captivating. 

For instance, one might be forgiven for assuming a church with both a bell and a bell tower would have had, at one time, the bell in the bell tower. It stands to reason. But the history we’re still uncovering has revealed that the bell had been missing when the current stone tower was erected (we’re piecing together a near-full century when the bell was intriguingly lost). So the 1930s congregation, without a bell but with a new bell tower, turned to a recent advancement in ecumenical acoustics: the electronic carillon. 

The stone bell tower at Georgetown Lutheran Church, rising from the corner of Wisconsin Avenue NW and Volta Place.

Of course, this was not well known to the current wards of the church; the old stone tower has been sealed for at least a generation. That is, until this last Saturday when, together with members of the congregation, BellFest climbed on up! A trap door in the ceiling of an annex to the sanctuary was reached with the aid of a modern, extendable aluminum ladder. So far, so good. A quick heft of the shoulder and the door pushed aside. 

A small mechanic’s lamp was raised into the void, revealing a square chamber with only one defining feature: a century-old, built-in wooden ladder leading to – you guessed it – another sealed hatch in the ceiling. We dusted off the cobwebs and continued our ascent. What was discovered beyond this door is still the topic of much conversation. 

Alexis Kaldany is the first through the second hatch door. 

Perched within the uppermost chamber are eight conical sound amplifiers, mounted to the louvers (long since sealed against the elements), and projecting outward to the rooftops of Georgetown. Each of these cones tapers to meet a round electric box which is wired to the adjacent speakers.

The whole system appears to have been operated by a single switch on the ground level, which had not been understood to serve any modern function (and which no longer works, as you might imagine). Our research suggests these electric chimes were installed during the pastorate of Rev. Harold E. Beatty (1927-1957), early in the 1930s.

The original 1930s electronic carillon within Georgetown Lutheran Church’s bell tower.

Finding no mounting or structural supports for the heavy iron bell, it was decided among those present that the most fitting tribute we could pay to both the bell and the founders of the church would be to have the bell refurbished and installed in a more publicly-accessible area of the church for the congregation to enjoy. We will remove the grime and rust, build a pedestal and mount, and appreciate up-close a piece of history that would ordinarily hang far out of view. And so the story continues...


Georgetown Lutheran Church

This article is part of a curated series on our work to restore the bell at Georgetown Lutheran Church in Washington, D.C. Continue exploring:

The National Bell Festival would like to thank B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry for their exceptional work in preserving this bell of historic importance.