Old St. Paul's carillon soon to chime in

December 11, 1990|By James Bock

Downtown Baltimore has gotten countless "new looks."

Now Charles Street is getting a new sound -- the clangorous sonority of bells.

A carillon of 23 cast-bronze bells soon will serenade shoppers and office workers twice a day from the tower of Old St. Paul's Church, Charles and Saratoga streets.

"Bells have a lovely sound, an exciting sound to me," said George T. Harrison, a Charles Street businessman and bell fan who raised over $100,000 to bring Baltimore a carillon.

"It certainly brings you to a halt and lets you think a minute or two," he said. "It takes your mind off pressing things."

The bells and their steel frame were delivered yesterday to Old St. Paul's, and workers began easing the frame into the brick tower of the 1856 Lombardy Gothic-style church.

The bells, which range in weight from 62 to 1,408 pounds and span two octaves, may be hung in the tower today.

Once installed, the carillon will be presented Dec. 20 to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke as a gift to the city. The first carillon concert will usher Baltimore into the Clapper Era at 5 p.m. that day.

Thereafter, the bells will strike on the hour and quarter-hour during the day, and brief concerts will be played at noon and late in the afternoon, said Rodney Hansen, Old St. Paul's organist, choirmaster and now carillonneur.

"We'll play all kinds of music, both sacred and secular," Mr. Hansen said. "This carillon is, after all, a gift to the city, not just a church carillon."

Mr. Hansen himself expects to be on Charles Street Dec. 20 to enjoy his own inaugural concert. A high-tech device will allow him to prerecord the music and then hear the carillon perform it. He can also play the bells from his organ console.

When he played the carillon two decades ago at his former church in Connecticut, Mr. Hansen said, office workers would lean out the windows to listen.

"It gives the church a wonderful presence in the community," he said. Wendy Weidemann of Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a non-profit organization that sponsors downtown events and keeps Charles Street festooned in banners, said the carillon should "add a lot."

"It's more of a small-town flavor in a big city," she said. "Instead of hearing a police car or ambulance go by, you look forward to hearing bells every hour."

The first exuberant peal of the bells may also toll the end of the high-flying Maryland economy that made their purchase possible.

It was in late 1989 and early this year that Mr. Harrison, a former president of Preservation Maryland, raised money from five corporate sponsors and two foundations to complement his own donation.

Hard times have since befallen a couple of the corporate givers, Maryland National Bank and USF&G Corp., and their chief executives have departed. But the bells bear the companies' names as a legacy of the days of giving generously.

St. Paul's Parish is paying for preparation of the previously unused tower, installation of the bells and their maintenance. Laurie S. Rockwell, a vestry member at the Episcopal church, said the carillon would enhance the parish's 300th anniversary celebration in 1992.

Lest anyone think the parish is just feathering its own belfry, however, she pointed out that the congregation of 450 also runs a homeless shelter and supports a Pigtown soup kitchen.

Mr. Harrison, an Oklahoma oilman who moved to Baltimore in 1964, said he was amazed to find that "a city as old and as big as Baltimore had no bells downtown."

Last year Mr. Harrison, who gave bells to his mother's church in Dennison, Texas, and to Sweet Briar (Va.) College, set out to remedy Baltimore's bell-lessness.

He began with a six-month search for five used bells for Old St. Paul's, of which he is a former member. He intended to donate them himself.

No suitable bells were to be had. So Mr. Harrison focused on new bells, but not a carillon. That seemed out of reach.

Then George V. McGowan, chief executive officer of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., convinced him to go the whole 23 bells. And BG&E made the first donation.

As a result, BG&E's name is embossed on the largest bell, and on another Mr. McGowan and his wife Carol are immortalized as "First Friends of the Bells."

From there, the well-connected Mr. Harrison recounts, it was simply a matter of approaching friends who happened to control corporations and foundations, and the cash was in hand.

Other donors include: Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust Co., the Henry and Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg Foundation, Piper & Marbury and the Ensign C. Markland Kelly Jr. Memorial Foundation.

The bells were cast and tuned by Petit & Fritsen, a family owned Dutch foundry that's been in the bell business since 1630. The I. T. Verdin Co. of Cincinnati is installing them.

Baffles in the belfry will direct the carillon's sound south toward the Inner Harbor, and the bronze bells themselves should be visible through the tower's eight 14-foot windows.

"Bells have been important for communication for hundreds of years," Mr. Harrison said. "Every community had bells to call people to meetings or warn them of danger or plague or attack."

So rest easy, Baltimoreans: If the plague returns, your city is prepared.

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