The Lowell House Bells

The Lowell House bells, a collection of 17 Russian bells, were given by Charles Crane as a gift to the house in 1930. The bells originally came from the St. Danilov Monastery in Moscow and were saved from being melted down by Stalin’s government.  As a result of this gift, the design for a traditional clock tower was redesigned to incorporate a bell tower instead.  In 2008 there was a carefully orchestrated bell exchange where the original bells were returned to the monastery, and a new set — cast at the Vera Foundry in Voronezh, Russia — were installed in Lowell House.  There remains a robust cultural exchange between Lowell House and the St. Danilov Monastery to this day.

Ringing of the Bells

The bells all hang in stationary mounts and are rung by pulling the clapper within. In the case of the Mother Earth Bell, the bell-ringer (with earplugs in place) stands on a platform and pushes the clapper, which swings back and forth in an ever-widening arc until it hits the side of the bell. All the other bells are rung from a separate platform. From here, the bell-ringer sounds the two other large bells ("Sacred Oil," and "Pestilence, Famine and Despair") with foot-pedals geared to the clapper, and strikes the fourteen smaller bells by hitting taut cables attached to each clapper and fastened to a waist-high ringing plate.

The Bells at Harvard

The bells of Danilovsky were one of a very few sets of bells that survived the Stalinist era. In 1930, Harvard University received 18 bells that originally had hung in the Danilovsky Monastery as the gift of Charles R. Crane, an American diplomat, philanthropist, and businessman. The bells were purchased through his agent, Thomas Whittemore, professor of Byzantine history at Tufts University.

The potential gift became known to President Lowell in 1929. As early as January 1930, the tower of Lowell House, then under construction as a clock tower, was re-designed to receive the bells. In the fall of 1930, the bells arrived in Cambridge. An elaborate system of scaffolding and winches moved them into place in the tower by hand power. According to an early account, a joke of the time had it that there was a Crane big enough to buy the bells, but not one big enough to lift them.

The foremost Russian expert, Constantin Saradjeff, was sent to tune the bells and supervise their hanging in a traditional arrangement. According to Mason Hammond, the first Senior Tutor of Lowell House, "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." Mason Hammond’s colorful account of Saradjeff’s time at Harvard and other details about the early days of the bells in Lowell House can be found here on the Lowell House website.

The installation of the seventeen bells cost a total of $17,000. An eighteenth bell, deemed to be too close in tone to one of the larger bells, now hangs in the bell tower of Baker Library at the Harvard Business School. The first formal "concert" on the Bells –in accordance with Crane’s wishes that they be played "in the original Russian manner" --took place at Easter in 1931.