A History by Mason Hammond

The Lowell House Bells

by Mason Hammond

(Copied from a MSS in the Harvard University Library dated May 9, 1936, with minor editing corrections made by Luis Campos, '99, February 27, 1998)

WHEN, in the fall of 1930, Charles R. Crane offered to Harvard a set of bells which he had purchased from the Soviet Government, President Lowell was enthusiastic at the opportunity of recapturing a little more English atmosphere by having a set of chimes on which tunes, or at least changes, could be rung. The Tower of Lowell House, originally designed to have four solid faces with clocks, was altered to receive the bells by inserting the arches now there and by strengthening the steel-work to carry the additional weight. Architecturally, the change somewhat spoiled the solidity of the tower by making the white cube seem too light to carry the spire above it. Structurally, the Tower could carry at least 120 tons, as against the 26 tons the bells weigh, so that those living beneath need have no fears.

Mr. Crane had been persuaded to buy the bells by Mr. Thomas Whittemore, a romantic figure who, active in the Russian Relief during the 1914-18 War, had conducted research after the war in Petrograd, and is now uncovering the mosaics in Santa Sofia in Constantinople. His enthusiasm for things Russian made him want to save from the anti-religious zeal and melting-pots of the Soviet at least one of the characteristic Russian peals or "zvons". He therefore negotiated, on Mr. Crane's behalf, the purchase of a "zvon" hanging in the Danailovsky or Danailov Monastery in Moscow. Mr. Crane's interest in things Russian derives from his father's service there as United States Minister.

It was rumored at the time the bells arrived that three had been broken in dismounting them from the monastery tower (which, in Russia, is normally a building separate from the church) and that the Soviet government had replaced them with unsuitable substitutes; but Mr. Whittemore assured me that the set had reached Cambridge exactly as it had been originally planned, and originally constituted. Russian campanology, apparently, is rather a haphazard and traditional affair. The tones of the bells are based not upon a western but upon an eastern scale, a combination, perhaps, or Byzantine and Tartar influences. A set of bells, moreover, is seldom cast all together. In this case the three largest bells were cast first and the rest collected to fit the basic tone set by these. In consequence, they differ in date from the three big ones, about 1890, to the oldest, now in the Business School, about 1790. The workmanship of the three largest is rather stiff and Victorian - religious pictures and inscriptions in Church Slavonic around the edges. Interesting, however, are the imperial medals cast in the edge. The largest had to have its lip filed for the clapper, which now swings at right angles to the original direction. When the filed metal was still untarnished it had a very bright color, evidence, according to the then bell-ringer, Andronoff, of the high silver content of the bronze. Of the remaining bells, the most handsome now hangs in the Business School, with winged cherub's heads of delicate workmanship around the shoulder.

Not only bells, but bell-ringing, had no fixed science. The art descended in families, often of peasants, who rang traditionally rather than with any real musical skill. Naturally each "zvon", differing as it did in number of bells and tone, presented its own problem. The Soviets sent their most expert bell-ringer with the bells to supervise their installation and to play them. He was said to be the son of a professor of campanology and of a daughter of a bell-ringer. However that may be, he had studied engineering in Germany and had advanced ideas on the subject of bells. He wanted to reduce the art to a science, and for that purpose hoped to install at Harvard a set of thirty-four bells, which would give him the range he desired. His scheme was set forth in a list (not included here) which gave the bells actually present and those which this man, Saradjeff, desired. The fourth bell present did not appear on this list, of which more anon. He was also supposed to have 132 "symphonies" already composed in Moscow for bells, and to be composing a special one for the inauguration of this "zvon". Mr. Whittemore claimed that Saradjeff had so accurate an ear for tone that he could identify by ear the sound of any one of the 4,000 bells in Moscow. Despite his technical qualifications, he was an unfortunate choice for Harvard, because he had a shy, vague character, he spoke Russian and a little German and French only, and his face had been seriously mashed in during the war. This injury, or heredity, left him with a tendency to epileptic attacks. All in all, he was not a figure calculated to inspire enthusiasm and confidence.

In November 1930, Mr. Whittemore told President Lowell that the bells had arrived in New York, that he had inspected them, and that they were all right. Some days later they arrived in Boston. With some difficulty, and after the largest had proved too heavy for the train- yard crane, they were put on a truck and flat tow, and brought to Cambridge. The smaller ones were stored in a room under the entry of Lowell House, and the larger in a shed remaining from the construction, on the lot next Gore, at the corner of Mill and Plympton Streets. I well remember how, while they were unloading them about nine in the evening, one of the medium ones, slipping gently, broke a workman's leg. Everyone took the accident more excitedly than the victim, who, after a good deal of scurrying about on the part of all present, went off in a police ambulance to the hospital. Some days later there turned up at the office of President Lowell's secretary a strange figure who purported to be the bell-ringer. Miss Dwyer, with no foreign languages at her command, hastily summoned Professor Blake from the Library. They asked Saradjeff where his baggage was. He replied, "Where are the bells?" He had apparently come from Russia simply in the clothes he stood in. He had, moreover, been warned by the Soviet Government to have nothing to do with White Russians, and he had the feeling that his family were being held more or less as hostages for his good behavior. He was not, therefore, made any easier in his mind when President Lowell lodged him with a Russian of White proclivities who was lecturing at the Law School. Nor did it make things easier for his vague mentality to have to cross Cambridge to Lowell House. It would have been wiser to have lodged him in the building.

When he was first shown the bells, he said, "You have one bell that does not belong in the set and you should have seventeen others." That seemed strange to President Lowell, who naturally looked for Mr. Whittemore. He, unfortunately, had departed for Addis Ababa to see Haille Selassie crowned. A cable sent to await arrival brought the reply that the bells were as they should be. It then turned out that Saradjeff had understood that his complete set was to be purchased for him - and Mr. Whittemore later said than an option had actually been secured on the remaining bells, but they were never purchased. The bell which Saradjeff thought did not belong to the set was the fourth, which had actually been hung with the others, but which he regarded as too close in tone to the third ever to be rung with the rest of the set. At any rate, he settled down happily in the basement to tune his smaller bells so as to bring their approximate tones into closer harmony. He made life miserable for the residents of J and K entries by his constant tapping of the bells. He tuned them by filing niches in the edges, which are still visible in some of the smaller ones. Bells can be altered in tone by the removal of some of the metal, but is it usually done by shaving them down on a lathe.

One day President Lowell and Dr. Davidson found him at his filing, and thought that he was spoiling the bells, so they ordered him to stop, which upset him. Many stories circulated about his behavior. One day he was playing the piano in the Common Room, and a student, who had been waiting a long time for him to stop, eventually indicated that he would like to play. Saradjeff politely got up, but, as the student played, kept pacing up and down behind him. Eventually he tapped the player on the shoulder, reached over and struck one note, and went off with an "Ah" of satisfaction at having found the note he had apparently been seeking. He used, also, according to gossip, to appear downstairs in his lodgings in his pajamas about midnight, and, as they had no piano, would ask to be taken to the neighbor's, where there was one. Finally, one day, a hectic student summoned me over to the Common Room with the report that the Russian was having a fit. I found him passed out in a chair and slightly drooling at the mouth - the worst of the attack had passed. I summoned Dr. Means from the Hygiene Department. After several recurrences of these epileptic attacks he was taken to the Stilman Infirmary. There, one morning, his sheets were found covered with ink. When asked the reason, he replied that he had been drinking it as an antidote for the poison which, he thought, was being given him. That was too much for President Lowell. With the assistance of Mr. Whittemore's representative, Mr. Seth Gano, he persuaded Saradjeff that he had better go home to his family. He went, and I heard afterwards that he died in a sanitarium. There are two schools of thought about him - those, like President Lowell and Mr. Gano, who regarded him as insane, and those, like Mr. Whittemore, who thought him eccentric but able. I was much impressed by the judgment of Mr. Myrick, who had undertaken to hang the bells. He was a hard-headed builder, and except when an interpreter was handy, could communicate with Saradjeff only by signs. He said that, as far as he could see, Saradjeff knew his business, had the practical engineering training to arrange for the hanging, and was competent. The interpreter also, a Russian graduate student who was attached to Saradjeff, was quite fond of him.

Mr. G. L. Myrick had been superintendent of the construction of Lowell House for the contractors, L. D. Williston and Co., and as he was out of a job when the building was completed, he independently took the contract for the hanging of the bells. Had it not been for the largest, weighing 13 tons, the task would have been simple, since they could have been hoisted on a derrick stuck out from the Tower. But he feared that the weight of the largest, so much off center, might warp the frame of the Tower. He therefore had to erect a wooden shaft alongside the Tower, in which the bells could be hoisted up. It took all fall to erect the shaft, which greatly interfered with passing through the arch. It was also necessary to remove the partition between the two western arches of the north side, in order to get the bells into the Tower. A winch with an elaborate system of blocks was put at the top of the Tower, since the bells could be raised more smoothly, if more slowly, by hand power than by engine. By Christmas, Mr. Myrick had completed his preparations. Experimentally, he raised the fourth bell first. It was moved on a runway from the shaft into the Tower, which had been filled with railway ties up to the level of the sills of the arches to provide a resting place for the bells. He very kindly hung this bell temporarily so that Margaret Coolidge and I could ring it to welcome in the New Year of 1931 - the first occasion on which any of the bells were officially rung.

Soon thereafter, Saradjeff left, and all that remained to guide Mr. Myrick was a small plan giving the position of the bells around the Tower, only on a horizontal plane. Saradjeff had insisted that the bells be hung in the traditional Russian manner - no electrical controls which could be played from a nice warm room below. No, the ringer must stand in all weathers up among his bells and communicate with them directly by chains, although it was pointed out to him that chains tend to gallop when struck frequently and that aeroplane wire would be much better.

A description of the method of playing the bells will make Mr. Myrick's problem much clearer. The large bell is simple enough; two men put a rope around the knob at the end of the clapper, which weighs about 800 pounds, and swing it crossways between them (not, naturally, from one to the other, as they have to stand under the bell - a rather deafening position). This sets the time for whole performance. The Ringer stands with his back to the big bell on a small platform, his right foot controls a lever to which are attached chains from the clappers of the next two bells, so that he can ring them together in unison with the big bell. This is not easy, as it requires a very accurate sense of timing. The three bells, thus run together, give a single fundamental note which continues between beats, and to which the other bells must be attuned, a rather delicate matter as the note is composed of a bass tone and a series of overtones. All of the clappers, save that of the big bell, must be held by their chains close to the lips of the bells so that a slight blow will make them ring. They are hung on rawhide, so that their vibration will not affect the note of the bells. The big clapper is on a wire rope, although it originally had a metal gadget which is now in the room under the bells. With his right hand the player holds a small stick to one end of which is attached the smallest of the four small bells, and to the others the three remaining, all by string. By jiggling his hand he makes these tinkle continuously, and cacophonously, throughout his whole performance. Finally, with his left hand he strikes in such order and time as he may see fit (or the rules, if any, proscribe) the chains of the remaining ten bells. These are attached to a small pillar in front of him in such a way that they stretch out fanwise, and about the same vertical angle. Since the bells hang in arches on three sides of the Tower, the chains have to be carried about, being tied to the walls with wire reins. Saradjeff left space on the three sides and all of the fourth side for his remaining 17 bells. The problem which faced Mr. Myrick was to calculate at what points, and how, to attach the various chains so that the clappers would all be equally close to their lips, the angles at the player equal, and the tensions such that the same pressure on the various chains would produce similar results at the bells. This he succeeded in doing with great success.

But before he could go ahead with the hanging of the bells, various experts were called in. First an English expert, from the great foundry of Loughborough - Taylor's - which had made the new bell for Harvard Hall, now in the chapel. (The former Harvard bell, replaced about 1928, is now in the Business School along with the fourth Russian bell.) He insisted that only the larger bells should be hung in the lower part of the tower, and that the smaller bells should go above. Then a conference was held one cold winter's night, under the light of a single electric bulb in the canvas-shielded Tower, with a cavernous dark opening leading into the shaft, at which appeared President Lowell, Mr. Parkhurst, the College's superintendent of construction, Mr. Myrick, Mr. Gorokin, singing teacher at Smith, and a Russian from New York named Andronoff. It was most eerie to see them discussing the bells right among the great and ill-lit masses themselves. Andronoff, a singer from New York, claimed to have rung bells in Russia some thirty years before. He was a tall, thin, cadaverous man with horn-rimmed spectacles, almost as odd as Saradjeff, but speaking broken English. It was finally agreed to hang the bells after Saradjeff's plan, save that President Lowell insisted that the big three be hung closer together, so they could be raised up into the second story enough for the lip of the largest to be above the sills of the arches, and thus the sound might escape. Andronoff was engaged to play them once hung. Saradjeff received further vindication when it was admitted by all the experts that the fourth bell could not be rung with the others. The Business School offered to pay for the cost of moving it, if they could have it; and, at the cost of $4,000 it was hung in their tower, where it now strikes electrically (peace to the shades of Saradjeff!) for the change of classes. Mr. Myrick hung the remaining three bells on heavy oak beams with iron straps. It is said that the largest bell, when first rung, bent its straps seriously and that they had to be reinforced. The bells were raised from the railway ties into position with jacks. Mr. Myrick asserted that they are hung with full safety for a century or more. He placed the small ones, as Saradjeff had indicated, in the arches. By spring he had completed his task, repaired the broken partition, removed his scaffolding, and sent in his bill for $17,000. Mr. Parkhurst forwarded this with some trepidation to Mr. Crane, who had agreed to pay for the installation, but it was paid without a murmur. It has never been known what it cost to buy the bells (though I think I heard that they were bought simply for their value as bronze) and ship them to Cambridge, but it must have been a tidy sum.

Mr. Andronoff then came to practice up for the opening concert on Easter Sunday. At once the horrid truth became apparent - this "zvon" was no carillon or set of chimes, on which each note could be played independently with some semblance of a tune. All the bells were rung together, and in particular the big bell made an uproar so loud that no one could do anything but listen, while the vibration was distinctly unpleasant in those parts of the building near to the Tower. Students raged, neighbors protested, and finally it is said that Andronoff left the Tower one day just before a policeman appeared to stop him. But after two weeks practice, he gave his Easter concert. It proved, as concerts have ever since proved, very disappointing. The big bell, supposed to be audible for twenty miles as it called the pious to prayer across the Russian steppes, was not really audible across Cambridge. From close by, the smaller ones were completely drowned out by the three bass ones, save for occasional rather meaningless tinkles. For the remainder of that year and all the next, there was no official bell- ringer. Perry White and others tried their hands at them from time to time, and I used to show them off frequently as well as amuse myself on them, especially after High Table. But invariably the undergraduates reacted with cat-calls, alarm-clocks, saxophones, tin-pans, etc., noises to which anyone in the Tower remained wholly oblivious, but which made the Master and others worried about the reputation of the House. Eventually he forbade me from playing the bells. His conscience, however, afflicted him with the thought that Mr. Crane's gift was going unappreciated. He therefore got the bells put in charge of the Department of Music, to whom he could shift the burden of proof for any complaint; and he arranged through President Lowell that Mr. Andronoff should come up two Sundays a month, at Mr. Crane's expense, to play the bells and to teach two members of the Department of Music to carry on. This arrangement lasted throughout the winter of 1932-1933 and, I two years, Merritt, of the Department of Music, has been the only person to play the bells.

The tragedy of the bells was certainly the lack of sympathy shown to Saradjeff and his eventual dismissal. Had he remained to hang and play the bells, one would have felt that they had been properly installed and that the playing, whether one liked it or not, was correct. Andronoff never inspired much confidence in me. Mr. Whittemore feels that the bells should have had a separate campanile across the river. That westerners would ever care for this type of bell-ringing seems dubious; but in the opera Boris Goudonov, the hero's crossing from the Palace to the Cathedral for his coronation is accompanied by music much resembling the ringing of the Lowell House bells. And in Mexico, I have heard peals rung all at once, without much rhyme or reason, simply for the effect of the sound.

But the arrival and installation of the bells, with all the people and incidents involved, did provide a deal of comic relief, as well as of interesting speculation, during the first winter that the House was open, at a time when events had perhaps a more problematical tone. And the bells have conferred a certain distinction on Lowell House, even if only to inspire a nickname for its members - the Bellboys. Moreover, actually to be in the Tower when the bells are rung is something of an experience. The ringer looks as though he were trying, metaphorically, to pat his head and rub his stomach, as he tries to keep time with both hands and one foot. The big bell reverberates in one's ears so that one can hardly think. And the lesser bells have more value than when heard from afar.