Of Time and the Clock Tower

tower“I’d really like to go up into the Kirkland clock tower,” I said.

It was last November, and I was having brunch with Charlie Taylor, a director of regional gifts in Vanderbilt’s Division of Development and Alumni Relations, in sunny southern California, where I live. Charlie makes periodic visits to the West Coast to touch base with alumni.

In previous discussions with Charlie’s department, I had articulated an interest in historic preservation and adaptive reuse of existing campus buildings. There are some superb examples on the Vanderbilt campus, including Buttrick Hall, the Old Science Building, and the Mechanical Engineering Building. As a student I had been oblivious to the interesting mix of architectural styles represented on campus, and even less knowledgeable about their history. And I’d been far too busy trying to make good grades to be involved in frivolous pranks such as gaining access to forbidden areas.

“Gee, I don’t know,” Charlie said gravely. “I don’t think they let people up there.”

“Oh, just tell them you’re dealing with an eccentric alumnus,” I said.

“Well, I’ll make some phone calls and see what I can do. Let me know when you are in Nashville next,” Charlie replied, probably hoping that would be never.

The following February found me rather unexpectedly in Nashville. And Charlie delivered. Based on my interests in architecture and preservation, Charlie had planned a morning tour of some of the recent examples of repurposed or renovated buildings on campus—including the historic Kirkland tower.

The first stop on our tour was the Old Gymnasium, where we were met by John Gaines, director of admissions. The circa 1879 structure, one of the oldest on the Vanderbilt campus, has undergone numerous reinventions through the years. When I attended Vanderbilt in the mid-1970s, the Old Gym was the fine arts building, with a gallery for exhibits on the ground floor and classrooms on the second floor tucked underneath the bare rafters. That was where Professor Robert Mode (still on the faculty, as associate professor of history of art) introduced me to Italian Renaissance art.

Now completely but sensitively remodeled, the Old Gym houses part of the undergraduate admissions office. During our visit a seminar was in progress for a group of potential students and their parents. Next door to Old Gym is its baby brother annex, constructed in the 1990s, which complements Old Gym’s Victorian Gothic design.

Our second stop was the newly reopened Cohen Memorial Building on the old Peabody campus. We were met by Joseph Mella, director of the Fine Arts Gallery. Completed in 1928 with funds donated from the philanthropist George Etta Cohen, this beautiful neoclassical building (also described as Jeffersonian classicism) has always served as a fine arts gallery. Through the years it had received some inappropriate alterations and was in need of updating and general repair. The definitive restoration was completed in the summer of 2009.

Mr. Mella also showed us the various gallery rooms on the main floor, and we viewed some impressive pieces on display from the Vanderbilt collection. On the lower levels we toured the temperature- and humidity-controlled vaults where the permanent collection is stored, including some recently acquired Andy Warhol Polaroid photographs. In addition to its function as a gallery, the Cohen Building also houses the Department of History of Art and the Department of Classical Studies.

Our third and final stop was Kirkland Hall. By way of history, the present bell tower (indeed, the entirety of Kirkland Hall) is not the original structure. The cornerstone of the original building had been laid in 1874 immediately after the founding of the university. At the time of its construction, Victorian Gothic (also exemplified by Science Hall and the Old Gymnasium) was the prevailing architectural style of the campus. Variously called Main Building, College Hall and Old Main throughout its early years, the imposing structure originally had two matching towers with gabled roofs.

As described by Paul Conkin in his historical “biography” of Vanderbilt University (Gone with the Ivy, University of Tennessee Press, 1985), and from which most of my historical facts are sourced, in 1905 a devastating fire destroyed Old Main. The fire, thought to be electrical in origin, started in the garret and burned for two hours from the upper floors to the lower floors. Conkin provides a gripping image of the destruction: “The beloved clock in the south tower was engulfed in flames but survived just to the noon hour, struck a desperate thirty times, and then fell into the rubble.”

Two hundred thirty-four steps later, Brian McGuire recalls images of his student days

At that time Old Main housed the chapel, library, chemistry and pharmacy laboratories, various classrooms and the law school, as well as administrative offices. Despite the fire, not a single day of classes was missed. At the time of the reconstruction, the master plan for the campus had shifted to a castellated Collegiate Gothic style. Similar to Furman Hall (completed in 1907), the new look for the main building featured flat roofs, turrets and parapets—thus the present appearance of Kirkland Hall. For reasons unclear, only the south tower was rebuilt.

I wish I could say we had to sneak up into the tower after dark, breaking as many locks as rules to gain entrance. But in actuality, it was all quite legitimate. Charlie and I met up with Tim Kaltenbach, executive director of planned giving, who was having a challenging day with his sums and needed a break.

The three of us were greeted at the front reception desk of Kirkland Hall by Mary McClure Taylor, herself a fixture on campus. She informed me that she graduated from Vanderbilt in 1952 and has been there ever since. She seemed somewhat alarmed when we stated our mission.

“I’ve never heard of anyone going up there,” she exclaimed.

Charlie assured her that all was cool. Joining us shortly was our tour guide: Paul Young, who has been an electrician at Vanderbilt more than 30 years. It is Paul who goes up into the tower “whenever anything goes wrong,” and it was Paul who had obtained permission behind the scenes for our tour.

And off we set. Or up, I should say. Two hundred thirty-four steps, according to Paul’s official count: 108 from the basement to the main roof, 94 from the roof to the bell, and 32 from the bell to the top. Initially, we proceeded up the public stairs under the tower that serves offices on the upper floors of Kirkland. Then, when we could go no further on the main staircase, Paul pulled out his keys to unlock a door in the wall, and we soon were heading up a set of rough concrete steps that wrapped around the inside walls of the tower clockwise (which seemed appropriate). Here my recall gets a little hazy—the climb was quite strenuous—but I remember a series of locked doors, platforms and, finally, trap doors.

Our first pause during the ascent was on the roof of the main building from whence the tower itself rises. It was a February morning and quite cold, with a stiff wind blowing. The sky was gray and overcast, and snow flurries were intermittent. We took in the view of the West End until the cold drove us back inside, and we then recommenced our climb.

Presently, we reached the level that contains the clockworks. A large square housing sits in the center of this tower chamber, from which rods extend in four directions that control the four clock faces on each side of the tower. Inside this large housing resides the actual clockworks. According to the little clock face on the controls, it was five minutes to noon.

On the next level up was a rather small device best described as a “thingy” sitting on the floor in the center of the chamber in which we stood. Somehow connected to the clockworks below, it also has a cable extending upward that disappears through the ceiling into the next level. This is the mechanism that physically activates the bell.

It was then that Paul suddenly signaled for us to cover our ears. It was noon. The “thingy” sitting at our feet suddenly sprang to life, and the upward-reaching cable contracted downward. The bell started tolling. As I stood with hands gripping my ears, I wondered whether Charlie had planned this timing on purpose. We waited until the 12 head-splitting peals were past. (Actually, there were 13; we were close enough to hear the preliminary upstroke as the clapper hit the bell in preparation for the first ring.)

We continued our climb to the next level. And then I saw the bell. There really is one! Contrary to the urban legend circulating when I had been a student, the ringing is not a recording played through large loudspeakers. Paul explained that at one time, there had been speakers on the roof of the tower, broadcasting prerecorded chime music at specific intervals. Because of a student prank (someone had replaced the chime music with another recording that was “not very appropriate”), the speakers were removed. But all of that was quite independent of the real bell that struck—and still does strike—each hour and each half hour. And it’s big.


View more of Brian McGuire’s photos from his bell tower excursion here.

Really, really big. Mystery solved.

Up and up we climbed beyond the bell level. The penultimate stretch of our climb was on a wooden ladder that was quite steep. One had to keep one’s head low because of overhanging rafters, and at one point I remember having to twist around 180 degrees and carefully step up the remaining way backward so as not to lose the skin off my back. Paul was leading the way, and toward the top he pulled out his flashlight to illuminate the rungs for those of us behind him.

Finally, he stopped to unlatch a trap door.

A shaft of daylight suddenly flooded the uppermost chamber of the tower, and we soon found ourselves at the top. One by one we crawled out through the trap door onto the roof. The snow flurries had intensified, and so had the wind. The view took away one’s breath even more than the bitter cold.

Immediately below us, and viewed through the parapets, was the green copper roof of Alumni Hall. Nearby was Barnard Hall, where I had lived my junior year. That was during the time of the first oil embargo of the 1970s, and I still remember the bone-chilling nights because of a cutback in steam production as the university struggled to conserve energy. Further away was the place outside McGill Hall where I had collapsed face-first in the snow and vomited after my first and only experiment with … well, never mind. In the distance was Tower One, Carmichael East, my posh address as a senior. Toward the south was the Stevenson Center and Buttrick Hall, where most of my science classes were held, including Professor Gisela Mosig’s genetics class that often featured her famous yarn chromosomes, held together by Velcro, which she used to demonstrate mitosis. All these images were connected by the sound of the Kirkland bell, reminding me that I was late for my next class. Reluctantly, we started back down.

It is as tempting as it would be trite to invoke the clock tower as a metaphor for the passage of time. Yet, as we clambered back down the uneven concrete steps of the tower, the fact could not escape me that 34 years had passed since Chancellor Alexander Heard had handed me my undergraduate diploma on Curry Field. And it had been 30 years since I—by no means a finished product, but certainly an expensive one—had ultimately emerged from Vanderbilt with my doctorate.

I’ve often heard it said that the years of college are the best years of one’s life. At the top of the tower, as I had gazed down at the stunning view of the campus with dormant memories flooding back, I found myself musing that this is probably true. But does it have to be the absolute pinnacle of your life?

The purpose of my visit to Nashville had been a somber one: to attend the memorial service of my thesis adviser, Dr. Frank Chytil, professor of biochemistry, emeritus. He had passed away late in January, and the memorial service in Benton Chapel had been held the previous day. As I reflected on the time that had passed since I left school, I decided that perhaps we should judge ourselves not so much by what we have gotten out of life, but by what we are leaving behind.

Frank Chytil immortalized himself through the many young scientists he had taught and trained in his laboratory—and I was fortunate enough to be one of them. I have no such legacy. But perhaps there are other measures, other means of giving back a part of oneself. And in that case, the pinnacle is yet to be reached.

Explore Story Topics