Campanile’s original 12 bells turn 100 years old

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Standing at 307 feet tall, Sather Tower, commonly referred to as the Campanile, celebrated the 100th anniversary of its original 12 bells Friday.

For university carillonist Jeff Davis, the campus clock tower is more than just a handy timekeeper. Davis, who commutes to UC Berkeley from Napa, has been playing the bells in Sather Tower for 33 years.

At the top of the Campanile, which is the Italian word for “bell tower,” the bells began to chime at noon Friday. After the second toll, Davis promptly arrived and prepared to play a collection of songs he had chosen that morning for the occasion.  

Among the variety of songs Davis played at noon were “All Hail Blue and Gold,” the classic UC Berkeley alma mater song “Hail to California” and “Campana Pastorale.”

The Sather Tower chime book that Davis uses, which contains three volumes, has expanded with the addition of new songs over time from past carillonists. In the past, African American spirituals, Native American songs, hymns and American patriotic songs have been popular, according to Davis.

Rust, caused by moist air arriving from across the Bay, is beginning to cause damage to the bells, and a year of fundraising efforts is needed to raise money for a $1.5 million renovation. In particular, the rust on the bells’ transmission mechanism, which connects a keyboard to the bells, is causing problems.

In addition, the small bells need to be moved to the top of the carillon — the arrangement of bells housed in the tower — where their sound can bounce off the tower’s wooden ceiling back down to the ground. They are currently surrounded in the carillon by much larger bells, so their sound doesn’t travel very well, Davis said.

“Everything is really big and heavy,” Davis said. “Just taking the thing apart will easily be a three month process.”

Despite the obstacles these reparation efforts pose, however, Davis called the small bells “some of the most beautiful in the world.”

The original 12 bells, called a “chime,” were added in 1917, but the addition of 36 bells in 1978 turned the Sather Tower bells into a concert carillon, according to a campus press release. The last 13 bells were added in 1983, forming a grand carillon of 61 bells. Inside the elevator on the way to the top of the clock tower, an automated recording gives visitors a brief overview of the history of the bells. Shirley Muramoto-Wong, who operates the elevator, took visitors up to the seventh floor and surprised many guests with the announcement that the original bells were turning 100 years old.

When asked what he thought of the tower’s 100th anniversary, Jeffrey Choi, a student visiting UC Berkeley from Boston University, compared it to the buildings in Korea 100 years ago, at which time there were no structures in Korea of comparable height to UC Berkeley’s Sather Tower.

“Thinking about this happening on the other side of the earth is pretty amazing,” Choi said.

Contact Elise Ulwelling at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @EMarieulwelling.