For bell, sound advice
This wasn’t just any bell.
It was a bell made by no less a master than Paul Revere. Its first note pealed 210 years ago.
But how would it look and sound now, perched amid the hurly burly of modern-day Boston in the steeple of the Old South Meeting House? An 876-pound bell of such lustrous lineage warranted nothing less than perfection.
So after the bell was purchased in June from a church in Westborough, a who’s who of regional experts in architecture, woodworking, and acoustics was assembled to ensure that the bell looks and sounds pitch perfect when it enters its new home tomorrow. After all, the Old South Meeting House has not had a bell to call its own since 1876.
The architect in charge was Wendall Kalsow, a man very much of the present who lives for the past. An architecture fanatic since seventh grade, Kalsow deals almost exclusively with historic preservation projects, such as the renovation of Provincetown’s Town Hall and Gasson Hall at Boston College.
But moving a bell made by the Paul Revere & Sons Bell and Cannon Foundry was a new kind of challenge.
“The donor wanted everything,’’ said Kalsow, referring to the family of James Storrow, who purchased the bell.
For starters, Kalsow needed an acoustician. Since 1876, the landscape around the Meeting House had changed, and there would hardly be a point in installing a bell in the steeple if no one could hear it.
Kalsow brought in Lincoln B. Berry of Cavanaugh Tocci Associates in Sudbury to answer some questions: Would the bell be loud enough? Would the bell sound good?
“As projects go, this one was a little unusual,’’ Berry said.
Berry used computer software to create a digital model of the bell, the steeple, and the surrounding buildings, and he discovered something surprising.
Downtown Boston, it seemed, is the ideal place for a bell.
Surrounding the steeple are tall buildings with reflective windows that cause the peal of a bell to bounce back toward its source. Instead of hearing one ring coming from the steeple, bystanders will find themselves enveloped by a cascade of bells coming from many directions.
A downtown pedestrian in 2011 would probably have a better listening experience than a colonial Bostonian as tones of C-sharp, E, and A tumble down the walls of neighboring skyscrapers.
“It’s kind of like a concert hall,’’ Berry said. “The tower’s proximity to various buildings is going to produce a nice ripple of reflection, and it will add some grandeur to the overall character of the sound.’’
Specialists also needed to assess what parts of the bell needed repairs or even scrapping.
Despite its greenish-gray patina - a product of natural bronze aging, as well as a little bird guano - the bell was in perfect condition. After all, in 1938, it had been thrown from a steeple into a nearby cemetery by a hurricane, said Robin DeBlosi, a spokeswoman for the Meeting House. Surrounded by rubble, the bell survived, unscathed.
“It’s a tough little guy,’’ said DeBlosi.
The wood yoke and frame, upon which the bell hangs, needed a few repairs. But the bell wheel, a large wooden wheel that attaches to a rope and swings the bell back and forth, was a slapped-together job in the wake of the 1938 hurricane. It looked rough and wasn’t sturdy.
A Revere & Sons bell deserved more: an elegant, historically accurate wooden wagon wheel.
So the Old South Meeting House turned to an economist.
Jeff D. Makholm, senior vice president at National Economic Research Associates, is an avocational woodworker. In his spare time, he creates wooden boats and furniture. He once made a bell wheel for Old South Church.
“Trying to figure out how people made these things long ago and make them look so elegant and polished . . . it’s a puzzle,’’ Makholm said. “And solving puzzles with wood is just as satisfying as solving economic problems with mathematics.’’
Makholm used 19th-century architectural drawings to create this wheel, a polished specimen made out of quarter-sawn white oak and gold leafing. The wheel, he said, is perfect.
“If it’s dusted once in a while and varnished maybe every 50 years,’’ Makholm said, “it ought to last forever.’’
When the bell is placed inside the tower of the Old South Meeting House, it will be the smallest and oldest Paul Revere bell on the Freedom Trail.
“It’s an audible reminder that the Old South Meeting House continues to be a gathering place for dialogue and debate in Boston,’’ DeBlosi said. “This bell really helps seal our place in the city’s history in a new way.’’
At the bell-raising ceremony tomorrow afternoon, a crane will lift the bell to the steeple windows, where it will be placed on iron rods and slid into place. As the clock mechanism is paused and connected to the bell, a chorus of hand bells and church bells from near and far will ring out across the city.
A joyous noise, it will be.
Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.