by Debra Johnson, Published February 25, 2014
YPSILANTI – A 164-year old bell recently restored to its original condition is now a permanent part of the new McKenny Gallery on Eastern Michigan University’s campus.
The bell, housed in the main entrance corridor of McKenny Hall, has had a long and storied past since it arrived on Eastern’s campus back in the late 1800s.
According to documents found in the Eastern Michigan University Archives, the Meneely bell was purchased by Michigan State Normal School (now EMU) during the school year ending June 30, 1874.
A financial report called the “Report to the Superintendent” (dated September 30, 1874), states “the sum of $1,740.83 has been expended for apparatus, library books, furniture, and a bell from the appropriation of a $5,000 grant by the Legislature of 1873.” The report cites a bell, along with two buildings, as assets in the inventory of property, reported by Principal Joseph Estabrook. The bell and hangings were also listed in the same report as an expenditure of $320.00.
“When Michigan State Normal School opened, the bell would be rung before the start of class by custodian Isaac Kimball as students made their way to their scheduled lecture,” said Alexis Braun Marks, University archivist at Eastern. “According to the Normal College News, the student newspaper, Kimball saw a small group of students hurrying to get to class, so he rang the bell steadily for 15 minutes. This incident, however, did not please Principal Adoniijah Welch at the time and Kimball was fired.”
There were only two buildings on campus around the time the Meneely bell would have arrived – The Conservatory of Music and the Main Administration building. The bell most likely hung in the tower of The Conservatory until it was raised in 1915 to make way for Boone Hall.
The Main Administration building was renamed Old Main, and it is unclear exactly when the bell was moved to this building, but remembrances printed at the time Old Main was demolished in 1948 recall the bell hanging in the observatory tower. Old Main was demolished to make room for Pierce Hall.
“Pierce Hall, which opened during the centennial year of the College, in 1949, sits on the site of Old Main and was meant to be a modern interpretation of Old Main, including the large tower,” said Braun Marks. When funding appropriations ran out, the residents of Ypsilanti donated money to finish construction on the 120-foot tower. In June, 1950, the school installed the Alumni Memorial Chimes, donated by the alumni and dedicated to those who died in World War II.”
The bell was moved at this time into a mechanical room in the basement of Roosevelt School (now Roosevelt Hall) for storage, and remained there until members of the Physical Plant discovered it again in 2013 and decided to restore it.
“I approached the restoration of the bell like I would approach any other project,” said John Lamb, a carpenter foreperson at Eastern’s Physical Plant. “I knew it would take a good amount of time and hard work to restore the bell. As it started to come back to life I knew it was a very special artifact in EMU’s history, and I was very proud to be a part of the restoration process.
Lamb said that during the final phase of restoration, workers were hand polishing the bell and discovered an inscription had been carved into the top of the bell. It says “Conservatory Quartet of 1889,” and lists the names of M.E. Latson, soprano; S.T. Billows, countertenor; M.J. Pease, tenor; and T.B. Sladding, bass. The inscription was not part of the original bell.
“I applaud the self-motivation and dedication of the Physical Plant employees involved with the recovery, renovation and display of this wonderful piece of EMU history”, said John Donegan, vice-president of operations and facilities. “This was no small task; this heavy bell was found in an awkward location, unassembled and very corroded.”
The bell weighs 700 pounds and is 33 inches in diameter. Along with its mountings, the overall size is over four feet.
“Relocated to the east entrance of historical McKenny Hall, the bell is lit at night and was put in a location where it can be seen from both the outside and inside of the building.” Donegan said. “The bell has already become a strong icon and landmark for the University.”
The Meneely Bell Foundry was started by Andrew Meneely in 1826 in West Troy, New York. The foundry produced about 65,000 bells before closing in 1952 due to metal shortages and the increasing popularity of electronic bells and chimes. Casting of a Meneely bell was done by hand, using a blend of bronze (approximately 80 percent copper and 20 percent tin). The majority of bells made by the foundry were shipped to churches, and the rest were sent to schools, businesses, municipalities and private estates.
Meneely bells rang for the funerals of President Franklin Roosevelt and President John Kennedy and for President Lyndon Johnson's inauguration. The replacement for the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia was a Meneely bell.
Once completed, the McKenny Gallery will feature a rotating collection of historical photos, artifacts and other University memorabilia.