Be assured, the Denny Bell will ring again this year for Homecoming, on Nov. 6.
But the bell — perhaps the UW’s single most popular icon — will make only a cameo appearance, so to speak, as it continues a years-long makeover that will lead to a ringing comeback to its home atop Denny Hall.
Has ever a bell led such a life — of adventure, honor, ignominious treatment by Mother Nature and, eventually, loving, laborious restoration?
The story of the bell has been told many times on campus — so often, some could repeat it by heart. Cast in (what was thought to be) steel in Troy, NY, in 1859, the 400-pound bell was bought for $368 and shipped around the southern tip of South America on the way to its Seattle home. It was installed the next year atop the Territorial University Building, and was first rung by Clarence Bagley on March 19, 1862. In 1895, after the UW had taken up residence in its current location, the bell was moved by wagon to the campus and installed on what was then called the Administration Building, but which is now called Denny Hall.
Back then, the story goes, it was called the Varsity Bell, and was used to signal class sessions and to help guide boats on Elliot Bay during heavy fog. It also was rung on historic occasions such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. The Blethen Chimes took over announcing class sessions in 1912, and the bell stood silent for several years thereafter — except for the odd prankster climbing up to sound it off illegally. A few years later, the tradition was started of ringing the bell for every Homecoming, and that tradition has remained in place ever since.
Fast forward to 1961, the year the UW hit the exact century mark, and enter Brewster Denny, UW professor of public affairs, just returned from a government advising job in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of then-president Charles Odegaard, with the aim of founding the UW School of Public Affairs. Denny, a descendent of Seattle founder Arthur Denny who would later become dean of the Evans School, joined with star UW basketball player Jack Nichols to form what they called the “Denny Bell Committee,” and took over the annual bell-ringing job. That first year when Denny climbed to the top of the building, followed by Nichols, they found the bell’s clapper missing. A length of lead pipe was nearby, however, which the resourceful Denny used for his bell-ringing debut.
Denny Hall underwent some renovations over the years, including repatching its roof with shingles that (unfortunately, we now know) contained asbestos. The bell was taken down from Denny in the mid-1990s, on the advice of Colin Sandwith, principal mechanical engineer of the Applied Physics Lab and research associate professor in the mechanical engineering department.
“We were worried about the severe corrosion damage to the bell, wear of the bearings and structural integrity of the stand the bell is sitting on,” said Sandwith, a teacher of corrosion analysis. If joggled by an earthquake, he said, “the bell could fall through the ceiling and drop into the lower floors.” After thoroughly inspecting the bell, whose surface was corroded by weather and decades of bird droppings — an occupational humiliation for many an outdoor public landmark — it was decided more scientific study, including non-destructive testing for defects and cracks by X-rays, was necessary to determine how best to refurbish and protect the bell without changing or damping its tone.
The cupola was removed in August and transported by truck to a specialty contractor in Everett, where its copper sheathing is being removed and rebuilt to bring the piece up to current Uniform Code. Norm Menter, project manager for the UW Capital Projects office, who is overseeing work on the cupola, said some dry rot was found and fixed in its wooden structure, but worse, the cupola’s connection to the roof also was badly damaged, and is being repaired. The original aim was to have the bell restored to its cupola in time for this year’s Homecoming, but the timing just didn’t work out.
“With construction, you can’t write anything in stone,” Menter said philosophically.
Meanwhile, back at the bell, Meredith Brothers, assistant to the director of the UW Maintenance and Alterations Office, was assigned oversight of the care, cleaning and restoration of the bell itself a few years back — a job she approaches creatively and takes seriously.
Brothers had the bell gently cleaned by being blasted with tiny glass beads and X-rayed to determine its structural integrity. She is overseeing the re-fabrication of the arms that hold the bell and continues to consult with Sandwith on the bell’s restoration. Sandwith said substantial credit for studying the bell also goes to Michael Welch, senior mechanical engineer with the Applied Physics Lab, and to the retired Elbert Pence, who he called a “highly respect acoustician and physicist.”
This group approached the bell’s woes as sensitively as if handling the ticklish temper of an opera diva, with the bell’s look, health and tone always their highest priority.
Of the bell restoration work, Brothers said, “It’s the first time it’s ever been worked on, and it was in danger.” And here’s where Mother Nature’s ignoble treatment of the Denny Bell comes in: “It was being destroyed by bird poop, basically — the corrosion was severe.” Such avian byproducts will not trouble the bell when it returns home, due to a protective screen that will likely be placed around the icon. Brothers said they also were interested to learn that the bell wasn’t cast steel, but cast iron, because it contained about 1.8 percent carbon, Sandwith said.
Clearly, the bell needed a new protective coating, but the challenge was how to do that without changing the tone — the very signature — of this piece of UW history.
“Not even a little bit different is what we’re aiming for,” Brothers said. “We had to coat it, but we couldn’t coat it so heavily as to dampen the sound. It had to be perfect.”
The bell was vacuum-coated with plastic to specific thicknesses to simulate coatings and sound readings were recorded before and after, to judge whether the protection altered either the quality or the length of the bell’s tone. “We’d put on simulated coatings then remove them,” Brothers said. “I have a whole CD of bell sounds.” In the end, they found the right level of coating, she said. The result, she said, sounded to them identical to the bell’s original tone, and matched its length of vibration.
And in keeping with the theme of loving care for an aging performer, bell may even get its own specially-made cozy, to keep it dry and safe. This also will prevent against accelerated corrosion and “bleeding,” which he said is when the corrosive pits fills, causing rust to run down the sides. Sandwith said the cozy should be of a material held away from the bell’s surface and gathered beneath, to reduce condensation on the bell. He described the cozy, however, as an idea of his still “searching for approval.”
The case of the missing clapper also was solved last year, when the piece was found in a storage area at the Burke Museum, where it had apparently been for years, and it has now been reunited with the bell.
Brewster Denny, who fairly personifies UW history himself, said the Denny Bell has special significance for the University, and will always be a reminder of the forward-thinking people who founded the institution.
“It’s the oldest public university on the West Coast, a great university,” Denny said. “And these people were real visionaries. As they used to say when the sailboats would come into the different harbors looking for people to trade with — they’d look up and see (the Territorial University Building) and say, ‘My God, these guys are serious!’”
Denny, who is 80, said he plans to ring the bell this year, and next, and on until his 50th year on the job in 2011 — which will be the UW’s sesquicentennial, or 150-year mark. He gets help some years from his daughter, Maria Denny, and his granddaughter, and he has an idea that her son, his 1-year-old grandson Jacob Denny Kodjababian, might someday grow up to be a pretty good bell-ringer himself.
And of his place in UW and Seattle history bearing the Denny name, Brewster Denny said, “My descendency from people who landed at Alki Point I’ve never looked upon as an entitlement — only a responsibility.”