Around the Mall & Beyond

Every belfry must have its bell, and what better time than the Smithsonian Institution's 150th birthday to hoist one up to the Castle clock?

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We know more about the bell's future than we do about our own: after being wheeled out of the old Children's Room in the Smithsonian Castle at precisely 11:45 a.m. on August 10, it will be hoisted up to the clock tower, where at the stroke of noon it will denote the hour by bonging 12 times in D flat.

It was supposed to bong in A sharp, but after casting, the bell seemed to "want" D flat. Knowing their craft well, the tuners at the foundry went along.

In a minute I will get into why there is a Castle here, with crenellated towers and owls and everything. But first I have to say something about the bell and why it will bong on August 10.

As it happens, August 10, 1846, was the day, 150 years ago, that Congress established the Smithsonian Institution.

The Sesquicentennial Bell was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry of London, which also cast the first Liberty Bell, Big Ben and the New York Stock Market bell. The firm has been going for 576 years.

The idea for a Castle bell seems to go back to the 1847 plans by architect James Renwick, envisioning "a campanile or bell tower" and calling for four clock dials to be carved into the stone flanks of that tower more than a century before actual clockworks were installed in the late 1960s.

Serendipitously, David Shayt at the National Museum of American History, who studies the history of bell and clock towers, among other things, suggested in 1994 that the Sesquicentennial might be the perfect occasion for the Castle to receive its bell. The $40,000 bell is a gift of the A. T. Cross Company, which by remarkable coincidence is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, too.

Last fall the great bronze bell, 27 inches high, 34 inches in diameter and 821 pounds in weight not including its steel frame, was cast, tuned and shipped to the Port of New York. At the unveiling on January 29, the Washington Ringing Society, whose handbells were cast by the same foundry, chimed out the good news.

The bell itself will not swing but will receive the blows of an electromagnetically inspired clapper. Of course the people who work in the building were asked if they would object. They said probably not, considering that they had not heard it yet. Some even welcomed the ponderous tolling of the hour as an aid to ending particularly dull meetings.

When I was shown the bell by Richard Stamm, the Keeper of the Castle, the first thing I did was reach out to touch it. That is in my nature as a reporter.


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