NC State’s bell tower has always been missing one key thing. Any guess what it is?

NC State's iconic Belltower is about to get an upgrade

Tom Stafford, former vice chancellor of student affairs at NC State University, talks about the history of the building as he gives a tour.
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Tom Stafford, former vice chancellor of student affairs at NC State University, talks about the history of the building as he gives a tour.

After many decades, N.C. State University’s bell tower will finally live up to its name.

The 115-foot granite landmark off Hillsborough Street will get something that any respectable bell tower should have: bells. Since its dedication in 1949, the bell sounds have come from speakers near the top of the tower, produced by an automated carillon in a nearby building.

Installation of 54 bells will come about a century after the Memorial Belltower was first planned to honor alumni who died in World War I. It’s part of a renovation of the tower, with new bells made possible with a gift from Bill and Frances Henry of Gastonia. Bill Henry is a 1981 graduate of NCSU, and his two brothers graduated from the university. The Henrys’ son, William, is a freshman there studying engineering.

The news is being cheered by alumni and students.

The N.C. State campus sprawls out behind the iconic bell tower on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. A recent gift to the university will have real bells installed 70 years after the iconic structure was completed. The chimes that come from the structure are now electronically produced and played through speakers atop the structure. Chuck Liddy

“For the university, I have to believe that it’s such a momentous occasion because this tower is on our rings, it’s on our stationery, it’s on our street signs, it’s everywhere,” said Matt Robbins, who has two NCSU diplomas, including a 2009 graduate degree in architecture. “It literally stands for N.C. State.”

Robbins became known as “the bell guy” when he was part of a grassroots student campaign to raise money for the bells a decade ago. The fundraising effort was popular, but in the end only brought in enough money for five bells.

The other 49 will come in the next two to three years as part of an extensive renovation. The project includes a stairwell to the top of the tower, where a lightning strike knocked a chunk of the tower off in 2009, and repairs to the ground-level shrine room, which has suffered water damage over time. The surrounding plaza will be upgraded and named Henry Square.

The amount of the donation will be kept confidential, at the request of the donors, who declined to be interviewed, according to an NCSU spokesman.

The gift accomplishes what students and alumni have been trying to do since 1919, when the tower was first envisioned. The structure rose in fits and starts — the first 14 feet in 1921, another 10 feet each in 1924, 1925 and 1926. Construction stopped whenever the project ran out of money. Once the Depression hit, the U.S. government’s Works Progress Administration finished the exterior of the tower in 1937.

But there was no money for bells, and it was clear it would take many years for each graduating class of students to raise enough money, wrote engineering professor C.L. Mann, in a 1940 letter to the tower’s architect.

“Is there any such thing as electronically amplified sound chimes?” Mann wrote. “Of course, I realize that nothing of this kind would take the place of the bells, but it will be some time before we can expect to get them in the tower.”

He was right.

It took another decade to get the clock and first carillon. The tower’s dedication was held four years after the end of World War II.

Over time, the structure has morphed from a veterans monument to one of N.C. State’s main gathering spots. The tower is lit for Veterans and Memorial days, but it also glows red for big Wolfpack wins, or whenever students or faculty earn major achievements.

“Over the years, the tower has become the most iconic place and structure on the whole campus,” said Tom Stafford, former vice chancellor for student affairs, who has led hundreds of tours of the location. “This is now considered to be one of our hallowed places. It’s a sacred place.”

On the day before winter graduation, Stafford approached a few graduates in cap and gown who were posing for photographs in front of the landmark. He handed them the key to the tower, joking that it was his graduation gift to them.

“It’s kind of awesome,” said graduate Madeline Severance of Amesbury, Mass., after getting her first peek inside the shrine room. “I wasn’t expecting that at all. It’s emotional.”

Inside, a memorial plaque on the wall lists 35 names, but there were only 34 NCSU alumni killed in the first Great War. The name of George L. Jeffers, class of 1913, was carved into stone, but he had been erroneously reported as killed in action.

To correct the error, the university crudely chiseled in an alteration, changing the name to George E. Jefferson, a fictitious person. The name, according NCSU’s website, has come to symbolize unknown soldiers everywhere.

When asked about the plans for real bells, Severance said, simply, “I love that.”

Brian Sischo, vice chancellor for university advancement, said the Henrys saw “an opportunity to make a lasting impact on what is commonly seen as the most iconic structure on campus.”

For Robbins, the NCSU alumnus, a finished tower represents a dream realized for those alumni who wanted to honor their classmates 100 years ago. And a tribute to all those who raised money since.

“Not only is this a place where students gather, connect and have their voice heard, but it’s a place where the men who died so long ago can have their voices heard,” Robbins said. “The tower was envisioned that there would be this lighthouse, this beacon of light, but also of sound, so that these lost soldiers could find their way home. It was such a symbolic gesture. To have that actually come to fruition, it’s almost as if the building will come alive for the first time.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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