For almost 60 years, the bronze bells of the Netherlands Carillon, a gift from the people of the Netherlands to the people of the United States, have been ringing from an elevated point between the Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
The 50 bells in a 127-foot tower just west of the George Washington Memorial Parkway are a symbol of gratitude for the Dutch liberation from the Germans during World War II as well as America’s postwar aid.
Although the bells are kept in tune by an annual visit of Dutch carillonneurs, the tower is showing its age. And worse, Dutch diplomats say, the story of the gift is eroding with the passing of the World War II generation.
So the National Park Service, the Netherlands Embassy and the newly born Trust for the George Washington Memorial Parkway are teaming up to raise funds for the restoration, reservation and programming of the carillon, starting this week.
“It’s very important for a number of people who know about the history and friendship between the U.S. and the Netherlands,” Royal Netherlands Ambassador Henne Schuwer said Tuesday. “Part of what we are trying to do is reestablish that understanding. . . . The idea [of the bells] is whether you are big or small, you chime in together to make music.”
Queen Juliana of the Netherlands gave President Harry S. Truman a small silver bell during a visit in 1952 as a token of what was to come. Two years later, a temporary tower with 49 bells cast in the Netherlands was installed in the District’s Meridian Hill Park.
The tower moved to its current location in 1960. Renovations were done in 1970 and 1995, and a 50th bell was added. The bells range in size and weight — the smallest is 42 pounds; the largest, 61/2 tons.
Embassy staff placed a wreath at the carillon Wednesday for the Netherlands’ annual Remembrance Day, which honors those lost in defense of the nation. On Thursday, the country’s Liberation Day, Dutch carillonneur Boudewijn Zwart will perform at the carillon for 300 invited guests.
Alexcy Romero, the parkway’s superintendent, said he has requested $2.7 million in National Park Service funds to tend to “safety” needs at the carillon, such as removing rust; repainting the structure; and repairing floors, railings and the exterior metal cladding.
The competition for that money is fierce. But if it is awarded, Romero hopes to be able to reopen the lower half of the structure, which has been closed for more than five years, to guided tours for visitors seeking a stunning view of the monuments on the Mall and the scores of Dutch tulips that bloom at the site each spring.
“It’s almost like a historic home, because once you start opening up the walls, you don’t know what you will get,” Romero said. “The fear is not knowing how strong the steel is.”
Separately, the nonprofit parkway trust and the embassy will try to raise $1.7 million for upgrades to the musical equipment, including replacement of the clappers in the bells. The partners would also like to host educational programs and install a webcam that will record head carillonneur Edward M. Nassor, and guest musicians, at the keyboard.
They said their ultimate goal is to create an endowment to keep the carillon in good repair.
“Our parks are free. You don’t pay admission, but who funds them?” asked Duncan Blair, an Alexandria lawyer who is the new trust’s chairman. “This is a magnificent symbol — a stunning memorial. We want people to come here and enjoy it as a cultural resource.”
High up in the tower, just below the narrow winding stairs to the carillonneur’s station, the huge bells can be seen through wire screens. Each one is unique, Netherlands embassy officials said, carrying an emblem that represents groups within Dutch society. Inscribed on one such bell were these words, translated by an embassy employee:
“The song resonates with the gratitude of the Dutch people.”