The Bell Tolls

A special tour

Some of my University of Chicago photography was recently featured in the University of Chicago Alumni Magazine. The magazine did an interview with me and put together six pages or so of some of the images I collected before leaving The City Gray. Its publication, as well as a contact or two I had made in previous trips to the great vaulted Neo-Gothic campus cathedral must have made an impact, because I was invited to come by over the Thanksgiving break and take a few photographs. This was a real treat and allowed me to make a few photographs of places buried deep in hidden passageways and lofted high within the carillon tower. I followed a few loose photographic themes while in the Chapel and I will share them here on this blog in a series of posts:

Bells of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, the world's second largest musical instrument by mass. 12/3/2010

Chapel corners and paths not oft seen and behind large oak doors. 12/6/2010

The vaulted ceiling of Rockefeller Chapel and other ornamental odds and ends. 12/10/2010

As will be manifestly clear, the access and opportunity granted to me were wonderful gifts and I am much indebted to the Dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and the other contacts I have there. I can't thank Elizabeth, Lorriane and Michael enough for their interest and for their generosity in sharing it. In the coming posts you will see photographs of places I only describe in today's offering. I hope you enjoy seeing these spaces as much as I did.

The swinging peal of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon

With the Dean as a gracious and eager tour-guide, my wife and I, burdened as we were with camera equipment and heavy overcoats, scaled the massive Rockefeller tower to shake hands with a few bells that would be quite at home in Brobdingnag. My intent is to share something of that tour with you by giving a few older images of the path to the carillon. Entering the chapel is an experience simultaneously uplifting and humbling. Great oak doors with black, wrought-iron pulls yield quietly to a firm hand and make a stately report when closing; the great center aisle of the chapel lays before you:

Pomp and Circumstance

A long, stone path then leads under the eastern portico to the north end of the chapel and another heavy, but inconspicuous, oak door rests on black iron hinges. Hidden by the vault ceiling, this path has above it a suspended, wooden brother that has all the feel of some fantastical wooden plank bridge, strung by ropes above a bottomless gorge. Behind the oak door is a staircase of spiraling stone which propels you up above the pews, above the reredos, above the carvings and masonry and into a cold space between ceiling and roof:

The Chamber of Secrets

At the top of the spiral stairs is a door which leads you to the plank path I've mentioned, then to a room where all sorts of mechanical odds and ends and pipes are kept along with the original clock mechanism. Another door leads you up a very, very narrow spiral staircase that has a few sliding doors and brick apertures opening into the heart of the carillon's bells.

The Grand Bourdon

The Grand Bourdon

The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon consists of 72 bells, cast by Gillett & Johnston Ltd., of Croydon, England (source). The instrument was dedicated 79 years and one day before I first stepped foot into the belly of the beast and used my trusty ultra-wide angle lens to squeeze all of this monstrous, 36,000+ pound bell into frame. The three largest bells are located closest to the bottom of the spiral staircase and are positioned as a swinging peal with two more bells on the level above. All five can be rung together from the base of the tower to announce the time; I remember fondly those notes, reverberating around the slate-faced and gargoyle-roosted corners of the younger day quads. To climb over and inside the workings of the world's second most massive instrument was to use my hands and feet and camera to see something that my ears had long known.

The inscription on #72 reads:

In Loving Memory of My Mother Laura Spelman Rockefeller

1839 ~ 1915

This Carillon is Given

John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Anno Domini 1931

A 36,000+ pound bell

Scale is difficult to convey in these images, especially when the bells are photographed nearby with a wide angle lens. I'll say, however, that I was comfortably able to stand inside the largest bell and would still be able to do so were I far taller - it's hammer (which you can see in the last photograph on this post) would have crushed me like a grape. The beam you see running through the right of the frame above and the center of the frame below was wide enough to walk comfortably even when carrying a heavy camera and backpack. A little tap with the aluminum leg of my tripod made a beautiful tone which surely is but a whisper of the bellow number 72 makes when struck properly.

The Swinging Peal of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon

I explored the interior of this marvelous instrument a few hours before sunset and the light streaming through the openings in the tower's walls was warm and bright. The Dean was very patient as I spent quite some time in making some of these photographs, though I think these massive bells are never a boring site, even for those who frequently pay house calls to stately carillons. Gratings cover all openings so as to keep pigeons and bats from roosting but let the cold air rush through. Despite the lack of winged friends, the bells have acquired a fascinating patina. I very much liked photographing this strange texture. Late November in Chicago means strong winds and low temps and this day was no exception. Our guide told us how wonderful this airy space is during a thunderstorm when the crack and fury of the heavens are all about - it very much made me want to return during the late spring months and spend some time getting to know a supercell, protected as it were by a gothic skybox.

The Swinging Peal of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial CarillonThe Swinging Peal of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon

I'll show you some of the spaces I mentioned in today's post on Monday when we visit the nooks and crannies of Rockefeller Chapel.