The Bells of Old Chicago

0 Posted by - June 16, 2015 - Vintage View

Featured image: 1958 Randolph Street

When one thinks of Chicago sounds, the roar of the el, the honking of taxis, or the soaring of jets overhead may come to mind.  People’s voices.  Car and bus noises.  Street musicians and street preachers.

You might not expect to hear the sweet sound of bells and chimes and carillons.

While leading my tour groups along downtown streets, I always try to call their attention to these arguably anachronistic sounds.

Bells and carillons sound from churches and chapels all over today’s Chicago – including the Chicago Botanical Gardens – but there is something about these sounds in the middle of the Loop or the Mag Mile that makes them remarkable.  We often rush by in the urban cacophony, unaware.

In the very heart of the Loop, First United Methodist Chicago Temple’s carillon rings the hours from 400 feet in the sky.  Installed for Easter 1935, the 40-tube carillon can play three octaves.  Apparently, achieving the correct volume and tone to work from those heights in the canyons of the Loop was painstaking.


Early 1960s view south on Clark

A couple of blocks away is one of the quirkiest sources of music in Chicago: the cuckoo-clock-like figure of Gambrinus (medieval king of beer!), popping his belly out over Randolph at the top of the hour, accompanied by chiming, schmaltzy mid-century favorites.   Gambrinus was designed by Edgar Miller in 1934 for Eitel’s Old Heidelberg Restaurant.  Even though the building has undergone a dramatic facadectomy and today is an Argo Tea, old Gambrinus is still fairly functional.  He greets my guests from his balcony at 6:00 pm at the beginning of my 1950s Nightlife in the Loop tour.  And even though he doesn’t do much, he is a fascinating sight, all the same.

Old Heidelberg Gambrinus

Edgar Miller’s Gambrinus

On my Mag Mile in the Morning tour, we walk through a Gothic cloister to enter the hush of Fourth Presbyterian’s courtyard.  Most of my guests marvel at the peace of that space – just steps from chaotic Michigan Avenue – with its Gothic-style fountain and birds chirping.  We are also often treated to the sound of bells from the church’s tower, completing the medieval environment.

Here’s a visitor’s video (2012) that includes Fourth Presbyterian’s bells.


We tour guides often counsel our guests to “look up” and notice what is above street level.  I would further encourage you to “listen up” for the more subtle sounds of the city.



Postcard images courtesy of John Chuckman, Chicago Nostalgia


  • Wilfred Watsvik Høsteland February 8, 2019 - 5:47 am Reply

    Nice to see the former Old Heidelberg Restaurant. My very interess for that house is that the worldsfamous organist and recording-artist Ken Griffin was their “house-organist” with his Hammond-organ for many years until his suddenly death of a heart attack at March 11, 1956, just 46 years old. I visited the Place many times from 1983, and was much in touch With Mr. Griffin’s near Family. I even proposed for the New owners to set up a plaquette on that building (inside) about the famous artist who was there for so many years and made happiness to so many guests. I’m living in Bergen, Norway.

    • Wendy February 12, 2019 - 2:46 pm Reply

      Thank you, Wilfred, for your wonderful comment – all the way from Norway! I did not know about Ken Griffin and his music, but will do more research about that incredible aspect of the Old Heidelberg Restaurant. Thank you for sharing that. More people should know about him. There is a brand new book out that you might enjoy: Lost Restaurants of Chicago by Chicago author Greg Borzo. Some great photos included. He does have a blurb about Old Heidelberg, too. Thank you, again! Takk skal du ha.

  • Wilfred W. Høsteland, March 27, 2019 - 3:13 am Reply

    Hello again: There is a great part on Internet about Ken Griffin – go into Ken Grffin memory Pages, and there is plenty of stuff and pictures. I have been one of them who did that pages possible. Ken Griffin, in fact, was Americas most popular organist for a decade, and his records still sells very good. I’m really glad they did not demolished that old fine building on 14 West Randolph Street in Chicago.

    • Wendy March 30, 2019 - 11:28 am Reply

      Thank you, Wilfred. I believe I found the site you mention: Wonderful wealth of information!
      Also, the Old Heidelberg building is actually only a facade (thankful for that, anyway). The building was razed in the 1990s but the facade preserved and restored (a somewhat common practice in Chicago known as a facadectomy). The new building contained a theater for a time and today is a tea cafe.

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