NC State’s Memorial Bell Tower Tour

Yesterday, I went on a free tour of NC State’s Memorial Bell Tower. Whenever I approach PR’s or if I’m en route to Cup A Joe, I’ll take a moment to admire the tower’s grandeur, but even as an alum and neighbor to it, I knew very little about it. Luckily, there is someone who is a Memorial Bell Tower aficionado and proudly shares his enthusiasm with others by leading tours! Dr. Tom Stafford, former Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, invited alumni to join him on a tour of the bell tower and so I went, along with one of my Delta Gamma sisters.

I was especially excited about this tour because I had just picked up a rare find at Reader’s Corner used bookstore, North Carolina State University: A Pictorial History. This book was published in celebration of my Alma Mater’s centennial milestone and in the year that I was born, 1987 (NCSU was founded on March 7th, 1887). Now that I’ve taken the tour, I can flip through the pages with even more insight.

Centennial Celebration Book, 1987

I’m going to brief you all on the tour, but I do not want to give away any spoilers! I encourage you, especially if you are a member of the Wolfpack, to go on one of these tours. Dr. Stafford has lead over a hundred of them and has continued to lead them since retiring in 2012. There is limited space on the tour (you will understand why in a minute), but next time I see one coming up I will be sure to Tweet it out from the rooftops!

We started the tour at Holladay Hall, NC State’s first building and home to the first day of classes on October 3rd, 1889. Holladay Hall held everything the students needed, thus named the “Main Building” of the North Carolina College of Agriculture & Mechanic Arts. So when people ask you, “What’s the oldest dorm/dining hall/health center on campus?” You can answer assuredly with “Holladay Hall!”.

Holladay Hall 1890 vs 2014
Top photo circa 1890

Dr. Stafford went on to share some pretty amazing stories including one about a current student who is the great, great, grandson of someone in NC State’s inaugural class (yes, meaning he was there on October 3rd, 1889!). Next, he took us to the back entrance of Holladay Hall. But first, he pointed out a gem that most of the alumni had never even noticed. I used the excuse that most of my classes were held on Centennial Campus, so I seldom spent time on Main Campus, and that is why I had not seen the iconic Block S molding on the back facade of Holladay Hall!

Holladay Hall Block S
The Block S on the back of Holladay Hall was added in the 1930s.

When all of the oohing and aahing had ceased, we were lead into the Chancellors’ Board Room before meeting in the very exclusive (and very small) carillon room! Wolfpackers know that there are no bells in our bell tower, but we do still have a carillon room from where the bell music originates. It plays on a cassette tape which is then amplified through speakers inside the tower.

NC State's Carillon Room
Helen, my DG sister and fellow Wolfpack alum, pretending to play live music for the bell tower in the carillon room.

Up until 1989, someone would play that very carillon at 5 o’clock to close out each work day and take record in a notebook. Unfortunately, the carillon pictured below is no longer in working operation (know of any carillon players/repairmen?). Live music is scarcely heard from the bell tower now, but one lucky little boy (future alum) and one alum got the opportunity to play few diddies on the modern-day carillon during the tour.

Carillon Record Notebook
Dr. Stafford points out the record keeping of those who played the carillon.

My mind is blown at how much history (and how many people) a few square feet can hold!

At this point, I could barely recognize that we were on a bell tower tour. Before arriving on campus, I figured the tour would last 30 minutes. We’d get a peek inside, listen to a couple of stories, and be done with it for the day. Boy was I pleasantly surprised that it was far from that! Nearly 90 minutes into the tour, we made it to the base of the bell tower.

Our bell tower was erected as a memorial to the NC State alumni who died during World War I. Construction began in 1921, but was halted when money ran out quickly due to the Great Depression. It was completed in 1937 with funds from the Works Progress Administration.  Because of the haphazard construction schedule, you can tell a difference in the shades of granite stonework throughout the exterior of the tower when the lighting is right.

Memorial Bell Tower Shrine Room

bell tower shrine room
Looking up to the top of the tower from the floor of the Shrine Room.

We finally made our way into the shrine room and this is the part that I definitely don’t want to give away. There are 35 names inscribed in the shrine room of those who died during WWI. However, we only lost 34 men to the war! Someone made a mistake, and there is no CTRL+Z when it comes to engraving. One of the names on the list has been altered. Can you tell which name was edited to save face? (Look very closely!)

NC State WWI memorial

I’m not telling you the answer because I urge you to go on this tour and find out for yourself! We stopped only a handful of times, but the tour was 2 hours long! It is thanks to the storytelling ability and obvious passion of guides like Dr. Stafford that the historic preservation of key landmarks is maintained. Holladay Hall and the Memorial Bell Tower stand proudly and soundly today, after years of memories and many more yet to be made.