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LaVallee
Diane LaVallee
 
Sounds that Echo Still

Return visit to Hayes bell tower yields memories of Westminster Chimes and a concerned caretaker

By Diane LaVallee, J.D. ’83 & B.A. ’80

Photos by Rebecca Farnham

  Hayes Hall
Nearly a quarter century had elapsed since the last (and first) time I climbed the wrought iron ladder bolted to the wall from the fourth floor of Hayes Hall. It all started in 1978 as an assignment from my features editor, Denise Stumpo. She gave this rookie Spectrum reporter an assignment, "Go interview the little old man who winds the clock in the Hayes bell tower." "You mean the little old tape recorder," came my smart-aleck response. Surely the real bells had been replaced by a high-tech recording, I thought.

But off I went, with Spectrum photographer Mary Louise Mallick in tow. We made an appointment with "the little old man." He was Kenneth Cott, from University Maintenance, an all-around handyman, who, indeed, wound the clock and tended the bells for more than four decades.

"Kenny," as all of his colleagues called him, seemed a little cranky as he led us through a small square door on the fourth floor of Hayes Hall and onto the reinforced, domed ceiling that was the floor to the first landing. He mentioned that he had given this tour before to aspiring reporters and had never heard a thing again. Years later, his widow, Marie, explained that he was always worried about visitors hurting themselves. Now, in 2002, as I toured the bell tower with several University Facilities staff members and UB Today art director Becky Farnham, continuing our trek upward, we understood his concern.

We stooped to avoid hitting our heads (not completely successfully) and emerged in a dark room constructed with wooden beams. The only evidence of a clock or bells in that room were the counterweights and pendulum that came through the ceiling. A rickety wooden ladder was the sole access to the upper floors.

The climb up the creaky ladder was worth it. The darkness gave way to the brilliant light of the "clock room." Four huge, multi-paned windows, each topped by a glass half-moon, illuminated the timepiece on all sides. Twenty-five years had done little to diminish its beauty.

Looking more like a work of art than a timepiece, the clock itself sits in the middle of the room, an elegant centerpiece. The face of the clock is dwarfed by the large brass gears and winglike mechanisms that surround it. From the sides of the clock, long wire lines reach through the ceiling and attach to the hammers that ring the bells two floors up. The swaying pendulum is held to the clock with only a small piece of metal the width of a nail. Remembering clearly from my first visit, Cott told us that if it breaks, it’s rumored that the pendulum will go straight to the basement. Fortunately, it never has.

The clock room of 1978 was strewn with the debris of the student riots of the 1960s and early 1970s—a mattress, bottles and miscellaneous garbage. The clock room of 2002 was littered with other debris—pieces of long screws and rotted wooden beams from a renovation of the bells’ supports.

A beautifully crafted wooden spiral staircase led us to the next floor with the four huge clock faces that are seen from outside of Hayes Hall. Each 7-foot, 4-inch clock face is made of frosted glass—no plastic here—and backlit with an aesthetically disappointing, yet practical, circle of 60-watt lightbulbs. Beauty aside, the lighted ring provides precisely the right illumination for the clock faces. This level also shows the scars of the years. Small holes have rusted through the metal roof dome. Lightly scratched in the wall is a dubious memorial left by the student rioters.

(1960-?) Contributions of students of this school:

  1. Destruction
  2. Riot
  3. Anarchy
  4. Dirty Feet
  5. Perversion

The wind howled ominously, perhaps warning us that the only way to the bells was a long, dusty, cobweb-ridden wooden ladder to a trap door in the ceiling. Of course, there was no turning back now, so close to our goal. So upward we proceeded, the old ladder bending and bouncing under our weight, until, at last, the bells!

Four magnificent, enormous bells, weighing from 400 to 1,800 pounds, and tuned to the perfect pitches of F, B-flat, C and D. They are Westminster Chimes, the best-known of all clock chimes. A clapper hung down from within each of the bells, all but one frozen in place. Donated in 1928 by Mrs. Edward H. Butler, wife of the former publisher of the Buffalo Evening News and member of the Council of the University, the bells were once rung by hand, the clappers attached to long ropes threaded down through the ceiling to the lower levels. At some point in their history, the ropes were replaced with mechanized hammers, which rang the outside of the bell, slightly changing the timbre of the chimes.

Looking at the bells, I recalled my first visit, and how Ken Cott was transformed by the bell tower. He stood among the bells, his misting eyes looking far away, and told us about the funeral for the extraordinary Clifford C. Furnas, the ninth chancellor of the University of Buffalo. Furnas, a former assistant secretary of defense, Olympic runner, scholar, author and the architect who spearheaded the expansion of the university from a small, private school to a major state university, died suddenly on a trip to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 1969. A memorial service was held in Clark Gym and Cott honored Chancellor Furnas in the way he knew best: he rang the bells by hand during the entire funeral procession.

Standing in the freezing wind of that February day in 1978, or in the dreary rain of late September 2002, it was impossible not to be enchanted by the bell tower. With no walls or windows to impede the view, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Lake Erie. Even on a cloudy day, you can see the inscriptions on each of the bells, two by Judge Cuthbert W. Pound:

The appropriate:

I am the voice of life;
I call you: Come and learn.

And the hopeful:

All truth is one. In this light may
science and religion labor here together
for the steady evolution of mankind
from darkness to light; from prejudice
to tolerance; from narrowness to
broadmindedness.

Even standing in piles of bird droppings, rain dripping down our noses and backs, it is impossible not to be inspired. Ironically, the spell cast by the bells was broken only by their silence. Unlike my first tour, today the clock is stopped. The bells no longer toll. Kenneth Cott retired in 1983. A few months later, the bells stopped ringing. There have been piecemeal renovations over the years, often resulting in brief periods of the clock’s revival for special occasions such as Commencement. In March, 2003, School of Architecture and Planning technician Richard Yencer—working with a group of UB students—got the clock running and has repaired some of the bell hammers. Only a full-fledged restoration effort, however, will truly save the bells.

Indeed, plans for renovations of the bell tower are currently under way. Albert Gilewicz, project manager from the university’s Facilities Planning and Design department, is coordinating the once-in-a-lifetime efforts. What is needed now are challenging improvements to the structure itself, including replacing the windows, weatherproofing each level, replacing corroded and rusted steel panels and refurbishing the clock. This last effort will require the clock to be taken from the clock room—an engineering feat in itself—and will involve having it temporarily on display for the pleasure of all who will see it. See accompanying article for update on the restoration effort.

The technology exists to bring the clock back to life, and to have the bells ring again. By far the hardest part of the restoration plan is combining technologies from two different eras so that the bells ring automatically at the expected times—every 15 minutes on the quarter hour. The goal of the restoration efforts is to find the proper balance between the past and the future, to ensure that the bells sound as they did on their first day in the tower, yet create a maintenance-friendly system that will keep the bells ringing for decades to come.

Why did Ken Cott spend so much time and energy climbing through the tower to wind the clock and tend the bells? Why, now, are people devoting time and money to their restoration? Chancellor Samuel P. Capen said it best, when he announced the gift in 1928:

From time immemorial the sound of the bells has been associated with all of the supreme events of human life ... No one can resist their appeal, which is direct to our deepest emotions.

And so we wait for the bells to ring again.


Diane LaVallee, J.D. ’83 & B.A. ’80, is New York State Assistant Attorney General.



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