For U the bell tolled

Publication Date

As he climbed on the roof of the Visual Arts building, Wayne Christiansen had no idea he was about to uncover a piece of Union history.

A superintendent for Sano-Rubin Construction Services, the Albany firm overseeing the extensive renovation of the building, Christiansen and a co-worker needed to inspect the cupola perched atop the historic building for upcoming duct work.

The two pried back a few of the weathered louvers and peeked inside. There, resting silently in its wooden frame, was a tin and copper bell.

“We didn’t know what to expect, but we were so excited to see it was there,” Christiansen said.

Eighteen inches in diameter and weighing about 100 pounds, the bell was cast by the world-renowned Meneely Bell Foundry in nearby West Troy (now Watervliet). Between 1826 and 1952, more than 65,000 Meneely bells were produced and shipped to hundreds of schools, churches and factories around the world.

The sound of bells ringing is deeply rooted in Union’s past, whether to signal the beginning and ending of class periods, or awakening the campus for its prayers. The bells were also a target of student mischief.

According to the Encyclopedia of Union College History, in 1822, students upset with a bell-ringer tried to blow up a bell in the South Colonnade. Later, students stole the clapper and left it on President Eliphalet Nott’s doorstep.
And in 1860, students stole the hundred-pound bell from North Colonnade, part of the original campus plan and now home to Visual Arts.

“Though rumored to be either en route to Harvard or hidden in a secret club-room in Schenectady, it was never found,” according to the Encyclopedia.

Its replacement bell is the one contractors recently uncovered. It hasn’t been rung since 1936, when the College installed gongs in classroom buildings that were controlled by a clock in the Administration Building. Those gongs were silenced in 1970 after complaints from some faculty that they reminded them of high school.

In the next few weeks, workers will use a crane to carefully remove the bell and store it until the College decides its next use. A similar bell rescued from South Colonnade was restored in 1984 by the Class of 1947. It’s now on display in the lobby of Old Chapel.

Perhaps the bell will return to its longtime home when the building is renamed the Feigenbaum Center for Visual Arts and reopens in fall 2016 after renovations are complete.

“It’s pretty neat when you find things like this,” said Loren Rucinski, director of Facilities Services. “We assumed all the bells had been taken out over the years. It’s nice to discover a piece of Union’s history.”