Campanile by D.H. Parks
UC Berkeley’s Campanile, which is 100 years’ old this year, dominates the Berkeley skyline. Photo: Daniel Parks
UC Berkeley’s Campanile, which is 100 years’ old this year, dominates the Berkeley skyline. Photo: Daniel Parks

By Gretchen Kell

It may look like the strong, silent type, but the Jane K. Sather Campanile will be the lively center of attention in 2015 at UC Berkeley. The more than 300-foot-tall bell tower, a famous landmark with a colorful history, is 100 years old.

A Campanile 100th website, carillon concerts, an essay contest, classroom projects, a University Archives/Bancroft Library exhibit, special banners flying throughout campus and Campanile-shaped lapel pins for 2015 graduates all are part of the yearlong celebration.

“The Campanile was designed to be much more than a landmark; it was meant to be a symbol of the University of California’s grand vision and steadfast commitment to higher education, as well to as the state and public our university was designed to serve,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. “The tower’s 100th birthday is the perfect time to share this beloved building’s unique story, which is inextricably entwined with the history of the university itself.”

An interactive website that launched this week features a timeline of the tower’s history and a spot for Campanile fans to post memories, wishes and photos.

The kick-off event for the 100th will happen Tuesday, Feb. 3, with “Natural Frequencies,” a new-media performance based on real-time seismic activity on the nearby Hayward Fault. A seismometer inside the fault will modulate a light show on the Campanile’s west-facing exterior wall and activate the sounds of synthetic bells playing alongside live carillon music.

Audiences for the free, 10-minute performances at 6:30, 7 and 7:30 p.m. will gather on the brick promenade at the top of Campanile Way, between the Bancroft Library and South Hall. Hot cocoa and cookies will be provided.

The centennial also will include:

  • A series of carillon concerts; the first is Sunday, Jan. 25, at 2 p.m.
  • “Berkeley’s Ivory Tower: The Campanile at 100,” a Bancroft Library exhibit that runs Feb. 16-Nov. 2
  • The 2015 Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Essay Prize
  • A Cal Dining contest to construct the Campanile out of food
  • Charter Day, Cal Day and Homecoming weekend activities

Something to look up to

One of the oldest structures on campus, and a historic landmark, the Campanile was designed in the early 1900s by John Galen Howard as part of a master architectural plan to give the growing, but architecturally undistinguished, University of California a unique look. Philanthropist Jane Krom Sather provided $225,000 for the tower, including a set of 12 bells.

Construction of the Campanile began in summer 1913. (Photo courtesy of The Bancroft Library)
Construction of the Campanile began in summer 1913. Photo: courtesy of The Bancroft Library

The Campanile’s giant steel frame was finished in January 1914, and then-UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler and others enjoyed an open-air banquet on the future observation deck. “O stone, stand fast, look high!” Wheeler exclaimed a few months later, at the cornerstone-laying ceremony.

In late 1915, the tower, with its granite walls and white marble spire, was complete. Visitors arrived on March 24, 1916, for a 10-cent elevator ride and sweeping Bay Area views. Admission for those with a campus ID always has been free. By 1920, the Campanile was a major tourist attraction that drew, on busy Sunday afternoons, more than 1,000 people. Crowds continue to grow annually, and last year, more than 100,000 people from around the world took a tour of the tower and gazed from the top.

“Like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, the Campanile is a Bay Area landmark that people seek, admire and experience,” said La Dawn Duvall, who heads Campanile operations in her role as executive director of Visitor and Parent Services and also leads the  campus’s centennial committee. “In 2015, we hope people will visit for the first time, or the 10th, and help us celebrate this tall slice of California history.”

Bells and bones

The most fascinating inhabitants of the Campanile are its 61-bell carillon and the 20 tons of California fossils that are stored and studied there.

In 1913, the university welcomed a massive amount of 23,000-year-old fossils collected by UC-led excavations at the La Brea tar pits in prehistoric Los Angeles. At first, the remains of saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, giant sloths and other creatures were stored in California Hall’s basement. But since the unfinished Campanile was closer to the paleontology department in Bacon Hall, they were moved. In the 1920s, fossils dated between 9,000 and 13,000 years old from two other California tar seeps joined the collection.

Some 20 tons of fossils from California tar pits are housed in the tower. (UC Berkeley photo by Kevin Nguyen)
Some 20 tons of fossils from California tar pits are housed in the tower. Photo UC Berkeley/Kevin Nguyen

Many of the bones remain on dusty, century-old shelving, but Mark Goodwin, assistant director of research and collections at the UC Museum of Paleontology, said the treasures are in active use, and in new ways, for research and teaching. To understand global climate change, for example, the fossils can open a window to the past, he said, so experts can “get an idea of the amount of change that has occurred over time.” Goodwin added that when he arrived on campus in 1978, he was “speechless” to learn of the fossils in the bell tower.

The Campanile’s bells also arrived in stages, and amid drama. The first 12, cast in England, were ready to ship in 1915, but didn’t land in Berkeley until 1917. Their journey was delayed by the risk to British ships in World War I of German submarine attacks, then by customs issues in San Francisco. Once installed, they comprised a chime – a carillon requires 23 or more bells. Alumni gifts in 1978 and 1983 provided enough new bells to create a 48-bell concert carillon, then a 61-bell grand carillon.

Today, UC Berkeley has the only permanent, full-time carillonist position at a North American university, and University Carillonist Jeff Davis’ teaching program is the most extensive at a U.S. university with a bell tower.

“If you have a carillon at a university, it’s a no-brainer… We should be teaching,” said Davis, adding that the program “just grew and grew and grew” after he put up a little sign in the music building in 2000, his first year at UC Berkeley, that asked, “Bells, anyone?”


History lessons on high

The Campanile has a grand carillon with 61 bells; the largest weighs 5.25 tons. (UC Berkeley photo)
The Campanile has a grand carillon with 61 bells; the largest weighs 5.25 tons. Photo: UC Berkeley

Over the decades, the Campanile often has reflected history unfolding below – on campus and beyond. During World Wars I and II, large banners announcing the number of UC community members in the military hung down its exterior walls. At the end of both wars, the bells were rung; after World War II ended in Europe, they were played for two continuous hours.

In the late 1930s, the student craze for swing music met resistance from UC chimesmaster John Noyes. But in 1940-41 he relented, and famed blind jazz pianist Alec Templeton gave two concerts that, the Daily Cal reported, caused the campus to go “wild.”

At least twice, the Campanile has made the cover of major national news publications. In October 1947, Timemagazine ran an image of the tower and then-UC President Robert Gordon Sproul for a story on the postwar UC system. The New York Times Magazine used a photo of two male students holding hands by the Campanile for a March 1978 cover story about homosexuality on college campuses.

The tower became a film star in 1997, showing off novel virtual-cinematography techniques later used in the major motion picture The Matrix that were developed by alumnus Paul Debevec for his short film “The Campanile Movie.”

And as new research tools were developed in the scientific world, the tower’s old fossils became more valuable in the early 2000s, with experts using stable isotope analysis and other methods to search for answers about the diet of the fossil species, tooth growth rates and other mysteries.

Said Duvall, “At the age of 100, the Campanile and everything inside it of – like the university itself – hold untold possibilities for the next century.“

This article was first published by UC Berkeley NewsCenter on Jan. 21, 2015.  

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