Memorial Gets Its Voice: NCSU bell tower

Since its dedication in 1949, NC State University’s Memorial Bell Tower has stood as a symbol of the university as well as a memorial to alumni who gave their lives in WWI.  But not many know that construction based on the original bell tower blueprint was never completed – and this vertical icon actually has no bells in it at all.  The design architect likened the tower to a sentinel lighthouse that would help NC State’s lost soldiers who died in the war find their way home.  Because of the Depression, however, funding dwindled and the full design potential was never realized.  Items that never made it to the current tower include: bells, a bell playing console, glass clock faces, and a staircase to the belfry.  Falling back on a ‘plan B,’ students and the Alumni Memorial Committee raised enough money to install a temporary speaker system to ring in the tower until real bells could be financed.

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Fast forward to 2008 when Matthew Robbins, a graduate student in architecture, shares his zeal for completing the structure by founding the FINISH THE [BELL] TOWER movement on campus.  The campaign’s website ( features an extensive history of the memorial as well as a fly-through side-by-side rendering of the tower as it was designed in 1920 compared to the one that exists today.  To students, the Bell Tower is a landmark – to alumni it’s a memorial and sacred ground – but to Robbins, it’s a passion.  “The memorial is incomplete as it stands,” he says.  “People are moved by the story; it never stops being fruitful.”  Already entrenched in the tower’s history as part of his thesis project, Robbins launched the initiative and the Traditions Commission (part of the executive branch of NCSU’s Student Government) adopted it shortly thereafter.

The Commission was put into place to study the university’s traditions and history, and to actively promote and preserve the things that define the NC State experience.  Chandler Thompson – current head of the Commission and campus liaison between organizers and the student body – spent an entire semester exploring the Bell Tower ethos.  “Traditions at NC State are important to me,” says Thompson, “and the tower is our most recognizable tradition.”

Today, the Memorial Bell Tower is recognized as a gateway tying Raleigh’s political and business hub to the university realm of research, innovation, and vision for tomorrow.  In a greater way, it represents both the city’s and university’s shared commitment to our veterans and proud history.  “It’s rich, mysterious story captivates anyone that works with the project, and bringing its past to light is incredibly rewarding,” says Jay Dawkins, President of the NCSU Class of 2010.

Dawkins’ class, in conjunction with campus-wide fundraising and alumni support, raised over $50,000 toward the purchase of the second largest bell in a full 54-carillon set (as called for in the original design).  “Leaving it unfinished would send the wrong message,” he says.  Individuals who donated at least $210 will even see their name cast in bronze on the 2010 bell.  As a student-led enterprise, no university funding is designated for this venture.  Since graduating, Robbins and Dawkins continue to spearhead the project; the Commission’s objective is now to unite the student body as well as alumni in support of the tower campaign as the effort moves forward.  “Jay and I are in this for the long haul,” assures Robbins.  “It didn’t happen right the first time, and we’re not about to let history repeat itself.”

Now, for the first time in seventy years, efforts are back on track to give the memorial its voice.  Though many attempts were made to purchase bells through the years, all fell short.  “This project is unique in that the fundraising efforts are led by students and supported by NC State’s Annual Giving staff.  They are fully funded separately by university donors, so 100 percent of every dollar that is raised goes straight into the fund to purchase bells,” says Dawkins.  With all monies going toward the tower and carillon construction, organizers have worked hard to be as transparent as possible.

Seed money provided by the Freemasons launched a FINISH THE [BELL] TOWER t-shirt fundraiser that ignited interest across campus.  “The university’s office of Annual Giving and Alumni Association have been tremendously supportive,” says Dawkins, “working odd hours to help out at student events and going above and beyond to make sure every donor has a wonderful giving experience.”  McDonald York, the construction company that built part of the tower decades ago, gave a challenge-match gift of $5000.  And the NCSU Athletic Department helped by committing $17,000 in ticket sales from the homecoming football game and UNC-Chapel Hill showdown.

To save on costs, the Traditions Commission is now synchronizing their efforts with a university renovation of the Tower.  When the false ceiling inside the tower is removed, it will make way for bells to be installed.  The original builders actually left 50 six-inch square holes in the interior platforms with the intent that bells would one day pass through them.  As the economy temporarily stalled the renovation, the campaign was granted that much more time to fundraise.  And now that the price of bronze has dropped, money raised can go further than expected.  After addressing design challenges with university engineers and bell companies, the 2010 bell will be cast and brought to campus as fundraising efforts continue.

The timeframe for the remainder of the project depends upon the pace of donations.  Enthusiasm from the class of 2011 and other organizations is already brewing, and organizers would like to see the momentum continue.  An itemized pricelist is available, giving individuals and corporate sponsors the opportunity to contribute towards specific bells which start at a few hundred dollars.

It would be ideal to mount a set of six bells all at once as they would complete a five note chime plus one low note to mark the hour.  The rest of the carillon could then be added a little at a time as finances allow.  Until the 2010 bell can be installed in the tower, the plan is to mount it on wheels so it can be rolled out for events such as homecoming and big games while housing it in a prominent location on campus.  “If we can work out the logistics of putting it in DH Hill Library, we’ll display it where students, alumni, and the public can come see it and touch it,” says Dawkins.

Organizers point out that the tower’s completion, now within sight, would honor the service of those who laid down their lives in the fight for liberty.  Most who have already contributed have done so because they feel passionate about this cause and want to see their monies in action.  “People want to bring their kids here ten or fifteen years from now and say, ‘Mommy and Daddy helped make this happen,’” says Robbins.  To get involved, visit the website or contact organizers (, directly.

“One day soon the tower will sing with its true voice, and its sound will permeate the neighborhoods, businesses, classes, and open spaces that define our city and university,” says Dawkins.  “We can all do our part to make that a reality.”

Midtown Magazine
Sep/Oct 2010