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.
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.
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.
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.