Bell tower deemed too unstable to be used for celebration

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 29, 2011

By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — The bell inside Salisbury’s iconic Bell Tower will be silent at the stroke of midnight Sunday, marking the first time since 1974 that it hasn’t rung in the New Year.
But that doesn’t mean bells won’t be ringing.
Concerns about the safety of the structure have prompted organizers of the annual New Year’s Eve celebration to look for alternatives.
The Maxwell Chambers Trust, which owns the tower, had it evaluated recently by its construction adviser.
The adviser recommended no one be allowed in the tower due to an unstable floor and unknowns about the bell and roof structure, said Wendy Harris, business administrator for First Presbyterian Church.
So the Salisbury Fire Department is lending a fire bell for the festivities.
“This is a bell that used to adorn the front of a fire truck,” said Salisbury Fire chief Bob Parnell, “and that fire truck was retired a few years ago so the bell is now affixed to a box.”
Parnell said when Randy Hemann, executive director of Downtown Salisbury Inc., asked him about using the fire bell, the department gladly obliged.
Tradition will stand with a random drawing to see who the first person to ring the bell will be. After the first ring, anybody is welcome to do the same.
Bring your bells
Officials with Downtown Salisbury are also encouraging people to start a new tradition by bringing their own bells to ring. That includes, but is not limited to, dinner bells, sleigh bells, jingle bells and cow bells.
“Any bell that will help to usher in a New Year with a joyful noise,” Betz McKeown, marketing and promotions manager for Downtown Salisbury, said in a press release.
The New Year’s Eve celebration will begin at 11:30 p.m. Saturday with music, homemade cookies and hot chocolate at the Bell Tower Park on the corner of West Innes and South Jackson streets.
Those in attendance will have opportunities to win prizes including Downtown Dollars, which are accepted at most downtown Salisbury businesses like cash.
Silent forever?
Dave Jordan, treasurer and trustee of the Maxwell Chambers Trust, said he’s not sure if the bell will ring again.
“That’s a hard question to answer,” he said.
Jordan said from what he’s heard, the tower’s windows are rotting out and the structural stability is unknown.
“I don’t think the trust is going to be interested in spending a lot of money to fix it,” he said.
The tower is the only remnant of the old First Presbyterian Church, built in 1892 and torn down in 1972. The tower was left standing.
In March 1974, a city building inspector ordered the structure either be repaired or demolished, citing concerns about the tower’s roof. Slate shingles had fallen off, creating a safety hazard, according to an April 1974 Post article.
The Historic Salisbury Foundation led an organized effort to save the tower, garnering more than 3,700 signatures on a petition in support of its preservation.
That effort may have been one of the first public commitments to historic preservation in Salisbury.
At the time, tower repairs included refinishing the main level, front canopy, doors and steps; replacing broken slate on the canopy roof, foundation stones and broken glass as well as necessary structural floor and roof timber; and installing window screens where there were none.
By 1991 more repairs were needed.
Construction companies repaired the main roof, installed a bracing system near the top of the tower and fixed brickwork and mortar joints.
The Bell Tower received more renovations in 2005. Glass was installed in the openings along the four sides of the tower to keep out moisture compromising the tower’s wooden structure.
Hemann described the tower as maybe the “single icon” of historic preservation in Salisbury, according to the February 2005 Post article.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.