A recent tour for Yale SOM students of Harkness Tower, the gothic landmark that houses 54 cast bronze bells weighing 43 tons, collectively, introduced us to a piece of the early-20th-century campus. We discovered that learning about Yale’s illustrious history sometimes involves navigating claustrophobic passages, ducking to avoid head injury, and climbing 284 steps up a spiral staircase that Edgar Allan Poe might have conceived. The iconic structure rises 216 feet—one foot for every year between Yale’s founding in 1701, and the construction of the tower in 1917.
The unusual setting inspired EMBA candidate Amanda Anderson to research the average height of men in the early 20th century. Apparently, it was about five-foot-six. She said it made her realize she “was walking through history with a very different perspective on architecture.”
Inside, the bells brought the tower to life. Playing them, however, requires the talent and training of an organist. Musicians interested in becoming carillonneurs, as they are called, “take part in a nine-week ‘heel’ process, during which they learn how to play the carillon from current members,” noted Paige Green, who serves as co-chair of the Yale University Guild of Carillonneurs. “At the end of the nine weeks, there is an audition, and new members are selected.” With a few years of experience, musicians might seek membership in the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America, or compete in international competitions.
On our way back down the tower, a framed photograph of carillonneurs from the Class of 1959 caught my eye. It made me think of my father, striding along a path in the Memorial Quadrangle on his way to class that same year. Or maybe returning from football practice with his Bulldog teammates. For just a moment the music, the chimes, the resonance transcended generations, allowing me to share a subtle yet tangible experience with him, and connect—together, with my classmates—to the entire Yale community.
Fun Facts about Harkness Tower
- Construction: Built in 1917, in memory of Charles William Harkness, Yale College Class of 1883. His father was an original investor in the company that became Standard Oil. When Charles died, his mother donated $3 million to construct the Memorial Quadrangle, of which Harkness Tower is a part.
- Architect: James Gamble Rogers, class of 1889. He also designed Sterling Memorial Library, Yale Law school, and Columbia University Library.
- Sculptor: Lee Lawrie, a professor at Yale from 1908 to 1918.
- Bells: The tower was built with a set of 10; the addition of 44 new bells in 1964 made the chimes an official carillon, bringing the total to 54.