Bell Tower: Salisbury landmark poised to ring in new year, new chapter

Published 12:10 am Sunday, December 25, 2016

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1863)

SALISBURY — Few people have ever seen the actual bell in the Bell Tower.

Hinged to a spoked wheel and crowned by a counterweight ball, the bell impresses you somehow just in its sheer loneliness so high in the Salisbury sky, as though it’s the tower’s own hunchback proprietor.

The humble quality of the bell takes you aback. Long ago, pigeons and the elements wore away any shine. But don’t be misled.

If you give the bell a good rap with your knuckle, it resonates immediately with a rich bass tone.

Getting to the bell, suspended in the upper reaches of this West Innes Street tower for 125 years, is easier these days thanks to restoration work that has been going on since October.

General contractor Alfred Wilson and his crew have built a series of platforms and ladders to the attic of the tower, where they have anchored, reinforced and reinforced again all the rafters, cross supports and steel beams.

In tackling the work, Wilson and others, such as Dan Mikkelson, have donned masks as shields against dust and pigeon manure. They have braved rickety ladders, narrow landing areas and scary gaps between boards made weak by moisture and termites.

“With every step, you had to think, ‘Where am I putting my foot?'” Mikkelson says.

There are deep caverns to fall into within a tower this high, and an old trick Mikkelson learned is to never look down beyond his toes.

Again, as with the old bell, few Salisburians will ever see this work. From the outside, the Bell Tower looks the same, but Mikkelson likes to imagine how craftsmen deep into the future will view what Alfred C. Wilson and Co. has accomplished inside.

“What will they think of the work we left behind?” Mikkelson asks aloud.

Thanks to the interior repairs and restoration — and a new bell rope — the Bell Tower will again ring in the New Year next week in the annual celebration around the Salisbury landmark.

For many years, out of safety concerns, ringing the Bell Tower’s bell was put on hold and given over to a much smaller version.

The future looks much brighter for the Bell Tower in general. It will serve as an anchor point to a large downtown park being proposed for the 3.5-acre city block bounded by West Innes, South Jackson, West Fisher and South Church streets.

In July, the Blanche & Julian Robertson Family Foundation partnered with more than 25 families in buying the block from the Maxwell Chambers Trust, which owned the property for more than 150 years.

One of the first priorities was shoring up and preserving the Bell Tower. To do that, the N.C. Department of Commerce provided a revitalization grant of $94,340 for the project, which is also supported by the city of Salisbury and the Robertson Foundation.

The Bell Tower used to be attached to the Romanesque-styled First Presbyterian Church that was built in 1891-92 and razed in 1971-72.

The tower itself faced condemnation and possible demolition in 1974 until First Union National Bank and Historic Salisbury Foundation combined to save it and pay for necessary repairs.

Saving the Bell Tower did a lot to galvanize the early historic preservation movement in Salisbury. Other repairs would follow on the exterior and interior, including about $70,000 worth in 1991.

Meanwhile, the Bell Tower became an iconic symbol for Salisbury. Its image was used, for example, on license plates, the West Square Historic District signs and Downtown Salisbury Inc. stationery. It has been the spot where Salisburians ring in a new year since 1975.

People such as George Kluttz and Ed Clement have been among its great champions. Earlier this year, Salisbury Mayor Karen Alexander, an architect, called the Bell Tower “our own version of the Washington Monument.”

The interior restoration work has been a bottom-to-top process. On each of the six levels above the high-ceilinged vestibule, Wilson built new wooden platforms as a way of getting to the next level and the next ladder up.

The crew erected temporary scaffolding from which they could demolish and tear out damaged wood above them and rebuild. At times they had to work in safety harnesses so they would be caught if they did take a misstep and fall.

Each new deck includes a hatch through which materials can be pulled up. Wilson devised a rope and pulley system to haul up all the lumber. Some of the boards were as heavy as Mikkelson himself.

Steps outside the Bell Tower lead up to the vestibule, where people pull the rope that rings the bell about 75 feet overhead.

In the vestibule, Wilson has installed a new floor. Under that floor is a 6-foot drop to a crawl space. New Year’s Eve organizers did not want anyone ringing the bell to fall through the floor and take that drop.

All the rotting wood in the vestibule and elsewhere is being replaced. In many places, Mikkelson says, it could be pulled out by hand like reams of paper.

The vestibule walls will be plastered again, and new wainscoting will be installed, along with weather-tight glass for the windows. Mikkelson says the vestibule will be returned to the quality of a church interior.

A 20-foot extension ladder has been used to get from this first level to the slanted ceiling and roof of the vestibule. From there, the network of new ladders and decks make their ascent to the top.

Mikkelson judges that throughout the interior the project has replaced 95 percent of the original wood or wood added later in various repairs. Termites did much of the damage, along with water blowing in through open windows and a leaking roof.

Every horizontal surface was covered by pigeon manure, pigeon skeletons and nests.

“We shoveled out hundreds of pounds of pigeon poop,” Mikkelson says.

Some of the toughest, most challenging work has come in the tower’s attic, from which long vertical rafters, wooden crossbeams and steel beams support the weight of the cone-shaped steeple above.

In that space, Wilson was confronted with original timbers, supplemental wood used in previous repairs and all kinds of beams running in odd directions.

Because of all the termite damage, the weight had shifted in the tower. Wilson fashioned new oak beams, which he cut at his own saw mill, and used them as new horizontal supports.

He also devised a way to safely secure steel braces into the masonry along the side and sistered new boards to old vertical rafters.

“It was very touch-and-go and very slow work,” Mikkelson says of what Wilson had to correct.

As for the bell, which actually is below the attic, the crew thinks it originally was at a higher level until previous damage forced it to a more secure place. The bell is dated 1858 and probably was part of the original First Presbyterian Church, built on this site in 1826.

Mikkelson said the Bell Tower project so far is ahead of schedule and below budget.

Work eventually will move to the exterior, where a lift truck will be used in repointing and repairing brick where necessary.

A big question remains about what to do with the long vertical windows of the tower. Should they be screened as they were in the past, in the efforts to keep pigeons out, or should they be fitted with louvers instead?

No matter what work lies ahead for Wilson and his crew, Mikkelson feels as though he already has been given a Christmas gift. He says working on the Bell Tower has been a labor of love — and an honor.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.’

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or