Nearly A Century Of Chimes At Altgeld

December 21, 2016
The Altgeld Hall bell tower, on the University of Illinois Urbana campus quad.

The Altgeld Hall bell tower, on the University of Illinois Urbana campus quad.

Jeff Bossert/Illinois Public Media

Since the 1920's, daily concerts played on the chimes at Altgeld Hall have regaled students on the Urbana campus Quad of the University of Illinois. But only a few have been responsible for playing those chimes over the years. There’s no doubt performances will continue – it’s just a matter of who may be giving them.

Someone has performed on the chimes at Altgeld most every year since they were installed in 1920. Sue Wood, who was interviewed by Illinois Public Media in the bell tower in 2014, has performed since 1971. She was made Chimesmaster in 1995.

Albert Marien played the chimes for 37 years before her. Before that, the U of I’s bands program handled performances. They consist of pressing large wooden levers – a kind of keyboard - in the small room at the base of the bell tower. Until recently, the program has also allowed for visitors most years as well, with regularly scheduled concerts at 12:50 p.m.

Due to health concerns, Wood, a retired environmental chemist, hasn’t played since August, relying on a group of six students, just some of the many she’s trained on the chimes over the years. But she has every intention of playing again.

“Now whether I’m still Chimesmaster is a debatable question," she said. "I think 45 years of that at this is probably enough and somebody else could easily take over without any problem there. So it won’t hurt my feelings at all, because I’ll be happy to have someone else assume the responsibility.”

Wood has no problem playing the chimes once classes resume at the U of I, but she does need help opening the large door at the top of the staircase leading into the bell chamber itself.

She says playing the Altgeld Chimes have never required a structured program, just needing someone willing to play.

"That's what actually being studied at this point," Wood said. "How much the program should be redeveloped as a bona fide program of the university. It never was - it just happened to be something that happened at the U of I and somebody carried on. Because there were people there to carry it on unbeknownst to the rest of the world."

The wood lever 'keyboard' in the Altgeld bell tower. A practice keyboard can be seen in the distance.

Photo Credit: Jeff Bossert/Illinois Public Media

U of I Associate Provost for Capital Planning Matthew Tomaszewski says Wood will play a large role in the chimes’ future, including long-standing hopes for a capital funding plan relying on a combination of state funds and private donors.

"We have a campaign to raise funds to do a renovation of Altgeld, which would include the library and the chimes," he said. "It’s something we feel very strongly about that needs to happen."

Tomaszewski says as the U of I looks at details with architects, those plans would certainly include improving the chamber space for playing (and where guests have watched performances until recently) as well as required maintenance on the chimes.

Altgeld Hall itself was build in 1897. It was originally the University Library, then housed the College of Law from 1927 to 1955. Renamed in the 1940's to honor former Governor John Peter Altgeld, the building then become home to the Department of Mathematics and Mathmatics Library.

Altgeld was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

The Altgeld chimes were quiet during finals week – normal policy while exams are taking place, but noon hour concerts are expected to resume when the spring semester starts. 

Story source: WILL