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?

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.

"Uh oh," Stamm said. "I wouldn't. It's covered in graphite, and people get it all over their hands."

Well, all right. So I kept my distance to read the inscription ("for the increase and diffusion of knowledge . . .") and to imagine the thing being trundled out the south door and lifted by a 200-foot hydraulic crane 12 stories up to the clock tower roof.

The clock dials, four stories below, are being fitted with new hands to look more British Victorian and less French. In fact "Victorian" is the key word at the good old Smithsonian Castle, a building so beloved that it now appears on the Institution's stationery. The Regents wanted a design in the romantic medieval style so popular at the time, specifically a style more academic than churchly, rather like the towers of Christ Church College at Oxford University.

The changes in our two-winged, many-turreted Castle over the years are too numerous to list. They have followed the needs of the times as other Smithsonian buildings have taken over certain functions. The chemical labs and lecture rooms, for instance, went elsewhere as did the "apparatus room."

Joseph Henry, the first Secretary, actually lived here with his wife, Mary, and their three daughters in a ten-room suite. Archival photographs show the music room and parlor, study and art studio, and elegant bedrooms, including the melancholy scene of Henry's death room, with chairs grouped around the bed and medicine bottles on the table. I even located, atop a cabinet, the bust of George Washington that fell on Mary's head one day and broke her nose. Today the bedrooms are part of the second-story offices of the Secretary.

The main part of the Castle (now the Great Hall and Visitor Reception Center and, upstairs, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) was once a classic 19th-century museum. Dominated by a 20-foot-high hadrosaur skeleton (inaccurately assembled, it turned out), the place was crammed with case after case of wildlife specimens, rare rocks, mummies, "cannibal cooking pots" from the Fijis and live snakes from New Jersey.

The west wing was a library with great vaulted ceilings and rows of busts along the walls. Later it was a graphic arts studio and gallery, but today it is a staff and Contributing Member dining hall called the Commons, a name that is supposed to conjure up the ivied towers and high tables of academe. On the walls are 12 coats of arms of famous Britons from Shakespeare and Chaucer to Drake and Darwin. In my quick tour with Rick Stamm, I wanted most of all to go up the spiral staircases into the towers. As does everyone, apparently. There are so many legends.

The South Tower is the site of the Regents Room with its wonderful conference table and a few of the original high-backed chairs that weren't burned in the Great Fire of 1865. When Queen Elizabeth II visited here in the '70s, she had lunch in this room with Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and others. Because she is short, her chair was set on a dais so that her head wouldn't be lower than Rockefeller's at table. But Rockefeller, serene in his sense of personal entitlement and importance, went straight to the elevated chair and sat in it, dwarfing the queen.

In this room, too, Joseph Henry held a séance in 1868 to debunk the claims of spiritualists. Perhaps this is what spawned all the tales about the building's being haunted. Indeed, the Washington Post for May 13, 1900, averred that "guarded footsteps traverse the lonely corridors, made by unseen feet, and husky voices break the night stillness." Supposedly, Henry's ghost still roams the halls.

The North Tower, the tall, octagonal clock tower, is the one from which Mary Henry — and possibly President Lincoln — used to check out the Confederate flags flying over Virginia, just across the Potomac River. Before the fire of '65, the reclusive paleontologist Fielding Meek lived under the stairs in a tiny room with his cat, as he explained, "all the family I have."

The West Tower is a narrow spire where a couple of owls, named Increase and Diffusion after the Smithsonian motto, lived in the 1970s. Secretary Dillon Ripley hoped to establish a line of owls there permanently, following an old tradition, and for several years the staff took turns climbing up to leave them dead rats. But they took off anyway. "There was also an attempt to raise falcons in the South Tower," Stamm said, "and for a summer we had two students there observing them. They flew the coop, too, although I'm told that falcons still come to take a look around."

The past is much with us here. Smithson's bones lie in the Crypt Room in a fantastic marble urn. When the remains were exhumed to move them here, the great bone detective Lawrence Angel examined them and pronounced Smithson "a small man with bad teeth who smoked a pipe and was probably a fencer."

No doubt Smithson would be fascinated to see his bequest being realized this 150th anniversary year via the "Smithsonian Minutes" on TV. By now, practically everybody in the country must have seen at least one. There are 33 of them, produced by Jay Kernis for CBS. It was Kernis who selected the items, from Jonas Salk's polio vaccine vials to the Star Spangled Banner, from the original gold nugget discovered at Sutter's Mill to an early Edison light bulb, from the Woolworth's sit-in counter to Irving Berlin's piano.

And it was Kernis who not only found the celebrities to present these items but wrote the text. Sometimes he had to speed up the readers to make his minute; sometimes, as with Maya Angelou, they had to read it their own way, so Kernis edited out a sentence or two. Most of the recording sessions took but 15 minutes, though Robin Williams kept the crew doubled up with laughter as he did his lines for Einstein's pipe in a plummy German accent.

"I must have looked at over 10,000 objects," Kernis says. "The big surprise was what the celebrities chose to work with. Jimmy Carter wanted the Salk vaccine. Carly Simon picked Ben Franklin's first postal rate chart, for Franklin was a hero of her mother's. Miss Piggy refuses to appear with a puppet, so we could not have her present Charlie McCarthy. But she did accept Clark Gable's World War II uniform." Kermit the Frog did, however, agree to present the Teddy bear named after Theodore Roosevelt. It was flown to California for the shoot, in its own seat.

History on the hoof: in these "Minutes" we've also seen Colin Powell, Bette Midler, Barbara Bush, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Hopkins and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Who else can better show us an icon than another icon?

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