Burton Tower: An Inside View of a Beloved Campus Icon
Photos by Eric Bronson for Michigan Photography
A Towering Legacy
One of the most celebrated landmarks at the University of Michigan is Burton Memorial Tower, named for former U-M president Marion Leroy Burton. The tower soars 212 feet above campus. Its giant clock is approximately 25 feet in diameter, affording a breathtaking view on a majestic spring day.
During his 1921 commencement address, President Burton suggested a campus bell tower would be a fitting memorial to the 236 men from the University who had died in World War I. Burton Memorial Tower, an iconic masterpiece of inventive design, was dedicated in 1936. It remains the principal central campus facility of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
Burton Memorial Tower is home to the Charles Baird Carillon, donated in 1935 by the former University of Michigan athletic director. The carillon is a musical instrument comprising 55 bells arranged in chromatic series and played from a keyboard. The bronze, cup-shaped bells are sounded together in varied chords with harmonious and concordant effect. This bell bears an inscription recognizing Baird's gift.
The original Baird Carillon keyboard, which had been removed from Burton Memorial Tower after a 1977 renovation, was restored and reinstalled in 2011 to mark the carillon's 75th anniversary. It is located at the center of the bell chamber and is connected to the instrument via a system of wires, levers, and springs.
The carillon developed in the 15th and 16th centuries in the area of Europe that is now Holland, Belgium, and Northern France. Close to 170 carillons can be found in North America today, and several new ones are installed every year. These transmission wires connect the carillon keyboard to hammers and clappers that strike each bell.
The University of Michigan first offered the study of the carillon for academic credit in 1939. The School of Music, Theatre & Dance offers a master's degree in carillon and provides courses in bellfounding and tuning. Professor Steven Ball is the University carillonneur.
Graduate organ major Kip Cortez uses loosely-closed fists to strike the carillon keyboard's levers, which are arranged like piano keys. No electricity is required for the functioning of this ingenious system.
People need not see the clock above Burton Memorial Tower to track the passing of time. The Westminster Quarters are played daily on five of the Baird Carillon bells, each quarter hour from 9:15 a.m. until 9 p.m. This is the central drive gear for the automated hour-strike mechanism.
The Baird Carillon's bells are stationary, hung on a steel framework in the bell chamber 120 feet above campus. The largest bells are sounded by external hammers. The smallest bell weighs just 21 pounds. The entire carillon weighs more than 24,000 pounds.
Burton Memorial Tower is constructed entirely out of limestone-clad, reinforced cinderblock and cast concrete. By all accounts its construction and the subsequent installation of the Baird Carillon in summer 1936 were the most conspicuous news events of the year, if not the decade.
The bell chamber is located on the 10th floor, accessible by the one and only stairwell in Burton Memorial Tower. Classrooms, faculty offices, and the University Musical Society are located on the first eight floors. The observation deck is free and open to the public, pending weather conditions.
A 1974 renovation saw many of the original bells removed and replaced by more contemporary models. A current restoration is underway to reintroduce the preserved 1936 bells back into the instrument. "The voice of the Baird bells will outlive men and buildings, furnishing a spiritual and emotional link between generations of Michigan alumni," predicted Earl V. Moore in 1936. He served as director of the School of Music from 1923-1960.