The campus bells, which were silent for approximately 10 months, unexpectedly began to toll again over Homecoming Weekend Oct. 13–14. According to Joseph Valles, Facilities maintenance and operations supervisor, an ad hoc repair by Utilities* staff restored the bells.
Valles said that there are no physical bells in the bell tower above the Marketplace; the system is electronic. This electronic system amplifies a chime harp — both located in the basement of the Johnson Student Center (JSC) — and sends the sound over wires to loudspeakers in the bell tower. According to Professor Irene Girton of the music department, the system that projects the sound of the bells is a programmable electrical unit designed by Maas-Rowe Carillons Inc. Girton said that the CD-player system now plays a standard tune known as “Westminster Chimes,” but could play virtually any composition.
According to Valles, a flood damaged the system last year, breaking electrical components in the power supply for the unit’s amplifier. He said that he did not think the bells would ever come back after the flood; since the system is old, the damaged parts were no longer available from the original manufacturer. According to Valles, replacing the system would have been an expensive undertaking beyond Utilities’ budget.
Valles said that the decision to try to repair the bells was unplanned.
“It’s been on our queue to find a solution to the bells for a while,” Valles said. “We were down there one day, myself and two of my techs, and we decided, well, it’s already broken, let’s just tear into it and see if we can repair it.”
According to Valles, he, as well as Utilities staff members Louie Avalos and Lope Bautista Jr., found an issue with the electrical circuit board in the bells’ amplifier and replaced a transformer. The correspondence of the bells’ return with Homecoming Weekend was a coincidence.
Valles said that Utilities normally handles repairing boilers, air conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems at Occidental. Although the operation of the bells does not fit into any of those categories, Valles said that Utilities would know best what to do if something were to malfunction. Utilities’ main job in overseeing the maintenance of the bells system is turning them off when there is a film project on campus.
According to a paper written by Jean Paule, former college archivist, and provided by Anne Mar, current assistant college archivist and metadata specialist, students and donors purchased a new bells system in 1938. These bells replaced an earlier set that the campus installed in 1932, which had become undependable. Paule wrote that Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd. — the same company that made the chimes for Westminster Abbey — manufactured the 1938 bells. In 1979, these bells broke and were silent for 3 years. A major repair in 1982 brought them back to life. According to Paule’s paper, these bells chimed every 15 minutes and on the hour from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
According to Girton, the music department composed unique bell tunes for Founder’s Day in April 2011. The President’s Office commissioned three composers — former Professors Andre Myers and Bruno Louchouarn, as well as current Professor Jennifer Logan — of the music department to create new works for the carillon, which is the system’s formal name.
“They received a mixed reception. They were wonderful, and [President] Jonathan [Veitch] loved them, but response to new art is often mixed,” Girton said. “And the community as a whole did not approve.”
According to Girton, the divisive response to the new compositions made the college revert to the familiar “Westminster Chimes” by the summer of 2011.
According to Valles, the Utilities department is now looking into removing the bell control center from the basement of the JSC. The pipes and boilers make the basement an impractical place to keep expensive equipment that is hard to replace. Valles said that Utilities should be relocating the equipment to an existing dry mechanical room upstairs in the future.
*The Utilities department is a subsection of Facilities Management.