Music from a Chicago Skyscraper

1 Posted by - July 18, 2015 - Vintage View

Featured image by Bob Segal

In a recent WendyCity post, we explored the various sounds of bells wafting through the city.  One significant source of sound is the Chicago Temple steeple – 400 feet in the sky.  I have since visited that steeple for a glimpse of its inner workings.  Erik Nussbaum, Director of Music and Arts at First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, provided my fascinating behind-the-scenes tour.

The oldest congregation in Chicago, the Methodists got their start in a log cabin on the north bank of the river in the 1830s, but soon moved the little church to its current location at Clark & Washington – where they have been ever since.  A handful of buildings later, today’s congregation worships in a skyscraper.

Courtesy of John Chuckman Chicago Nostalgia

Courtesy of John Chuckman Chicago Nostalgia

The modern, steel-frame skyscraper was designed for them by Holabird & Roche and completed in 1924.   Neo-Gothic in style (as is Tribune Tower, which would be completed the following year), the building rises 568 feet above the Loop, making it the tallest church building in the world (the tallest church is Ulm Minster, Germany, at 530 feet).

The skyscraper church was planned as a mixed-use structure.  The spacious church sanctuary is on the first floor, and the 2nd through 4th floors are used for various church functions.  Floors 5-21 are rented office space (many law firms), while the steeple contains the mechanicals, the pastor’s 3-floor apartment, and the small, yet well-known Sky Chapel (dedicated in 1952, the gift of the Walgreen family).

Erik took us high up to the 22nd floor where the mechanicals are located, including the bell system: the Verdin Singing Tower Classic Carillon.  It felt as if we were wandering through a relative’s dusty, old attic – only with much more amazing views.

Erik Nussbaum

I had incorrectly assumed that the bell system I read of in a 1935 Chicago Tribune article was the current system.  Installed for Easter 1935, it had consisted of 40-tubes that played three octaves.  But that one was replaced in the 1980s by the current digital system, which is capable of doing far more.

Carillon is a French word that means a set of bells played by either keys or pedals.  While modern carillons usually don’t involve actual bells, the digital samples provide an accurate recreation of the sound of swinging, heavy, bronze bells.

Erik is the one who programs the Verdin Carillon and he explained how the music happens: the programmable console feeds the sound through the amplifiers and out through four large speakers.

Two of the speakers

Two of the speakers

The carillon is capable of tolling, pealing, and playing music.   Erik programs the system to play automatically at certain times of the day.  But he has also worked the carillon “live” and on cue.


If you are in the Loop, you are bound to hear the delightful sounds of the carillon, which plays from 8 am to 9:45 pm daily.   It rings every quarter hour – otherwise known as a “time strike” – and is capable of chiming like a variety of famous churches or simply striking the hours.

At the :46 point of each hour, the carillon launches into song.  Erik chooses songs and hymns that go with the seasons out of a list of hundreds (Christmas, Lent/Easter, Patriotic, etc.).  He thinks about the time of day and what busy people might be inspired by.  Chicago Temple’s signature hymn, he says, is “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life.”  How fitting for the heart of the city!  The last song of the day ushers late commuters toward home at 6:46 pm.

The bells sound a call to worship at ten minutes before each Sunday service and they peal for church weddings.  The carillon is such an important part of the congregation’s identity, their monthly newsletter is named for it.

With Chicago Temple’s location on Daley Plaza and adjacent to City Hall, Erik has been asked to provide music for various events, including a funeral toll for Maggie Daley and for a 9/11 memorial.  He will program the national anthem for patriotic events.  Depending on the nature of the event, he has sometimes had to wait by the console on the 22nd floor for his cue via walkie-talkie.

Chicago Temple’s bells were set to peal wildly during the 2010 and 2013 Blackhawks parades, but if you were present for those parades, you know: the (loud) carillon was no match for the roar of the crowds.

If you haven’t seen inside this wonderful building, stop in; the congregation is very welcoming to visitors.  They offer free tours of the Sky Chapel, Monday through Saturday at 2 PM and you can pop in and see their main sanctuary anytime during the day (while there, be sure and find the colorful, stained glass window depicting Chicago on the west wall).

Next time you are in the heart of the Loop, amidst all the urban cacophony, pay particular attention to the inspiring sounds of Chicago Temple’s carillon.

Many thanks to First United Methodist at the Chicago Temple, and particularly to Erik Nussbaum.



  • "Mom" harriet July 23, 2015 - 8:44 am Reply

    What a super article, congratulation to you Erik, I am sure this alone keeps you very busy. Would love to see you and aren.

  • Marlin Keesler July 23, 2015 - 9:35 am Reply

    About 4 years ago I had plans on taking the 2pm sky chapel tour. I had some extra time that morning and decided to spend it at the Art Institute. I wanted to learn a little bit more about Chagall’s windows. Near the Chagall stained glass window display is a computer that allows you to navigate through some of Marc Chagall’s work including the windows. I scanned through it and learned the symbolism of each of the six stained glass windows. Then I walked over to the windows to connect what I had just learned. While standing there a man and woman walked up and began making there own interpretation of what they were looking at. Since it was fresh in my mind I jumped in and explained each one to them. They thanked me and we parted ways. I never really looked at their faces.

    Later on I arrived a the Chicago Temple for the tour. There were 6 or 7 others waiting. The guide came out and asked everyone where they were from. I was last. He said; “I’m Eric, we met this morning by Chagall’s Windows at the Art Institute”.

    Small world. Eric is a great person. He gives an awesome tour.

    • Wendy July 23, 2015 - 9:42 am Reply

      Wow, Marlin – what a fantastic story!

  • Jim Rittenhouse July 23, 2015 - 3:57 pm Reply

    Erik DOES give a great tour, and represents both this wonderfully historic building and worshipping community, but also its broad mission in the life of the church. He inspired my youth choir and group from Louisville this summer. Thank you for the article, Wendy.

    • Wendy July 23, 2015 - 4:00 pm Reply

      Thank you for your comment, Jim!

  • Steve Wylder August 9, 2015 - 1:47 pm Reply

    Charles Merrill Smith, himself a Methodist minister, wrote the Reverend Randollph mystery series, the chief detective being the pastor of a thinly-disguised Chicago Temple. Randollph is the former L.A. Rams quarterback “Con” Randolph, who gets religion, changes his name with the extra “l,” and solves one murder after the other. Not great detective fiction, but good.

  • […] Methodist Church Chicago Temple is playing a special set of music during weekdays this month.  (For a fascinating look at the skyscraper carillon, more here.)  Erik Nussbaum, Director of Music and the Arts, sent along this list of tunes.  Do you have a […]

  • […] the 22nd floor, the carillon rings out sacred music on the hour.  For a behind the scenes look at the carillon, see my previous post.  The songs are chosen for the season and during this Lent you will hear the following: […]

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