Hark. Hear the bells?
I’ll bet you do. The bells in the tower of the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue NW are kind of hard to ignore. There are 10 in all, and they weigh a total of 13,000 pounds. When the clappers get to clapping, there’s a well-orchestrated cacophony that can be heard for blocks.
And that has some people wondering how guests are going to sleep once the Old Post Office has been transformed into a Donald Trump luxury hotel. Will the bells continue to peal as frequently and loudly as they always have?
“The answer is, we’re not sure,” said Katie Emmons, ringing master of the Washington Ringing Society, the volunteer group responsible for making the bells sing. “We’re trying to find out the impact of the noise on the interior. It would seem to be very slight.”
Never fear, says the General Services Administration, which oversees the property and brokered the deal with Trump. A GSA spokesman told me that the bells aren’t overly loud within the building and will continue to chime. What’s more, Trump’s winning proposal includes the creation of a “curated” bell museum, which is surely the first time the word “Trump” and “museum” have been in the same sentence.
If the sound of the bells is minimal within the building, it is not minimal without, which, of course, is the whole point of bells. In the days before Twitter, bells were used to send messages long distances.
“We tend to ring during off hours there because those bells are right next to the IRS commissioner’s office,” said Katie, whose group also rings the bells at Washington National Cathedral. “So when we ring during [a weekday] . . . well, we’ve only done that once, let’s put it that way.”
Word quickly came through official channels that the IRS was not happy.
“They did not find it musical at all,” Katie said.
The Washington Ringing Society practices every Thursday evening at the Old Post Office, pulling on ropes that hang down through holes in the ceiling. There are 40 or so members, augmented from time to time by visiting ringers. (If you know how to ring bells in your town, you’re invited to participate wherever you go.) The bells are rung on federal holidays and other special occasions.
The Old Post Office bells are replicas of the ones in Westminster Abbey. They were a present from a wealthy English tobacco company heir named David Wills. In 1975, Wills looked at his calendar and saw that the American bicentennial was coming up. As the founder of the Ditchley Foundation, which seeks to foster Anglo-U.S. relations, Wills wanted to give a memorable gift.
He paid a not inconsiderable sum to have bells cast at London’s famed Whitechapel Bell Foundry. What Wills failed to do was find a place for the bells to go. He was hoping they would be Britain’s official bicentennial gift to our country, but the British gave us a copy of the Magna Carta instead. That left the bells gathering dust at the foundry. Wills thought they would be perfect for the U.S. Capitol, but there was no place to stick them there.
It wasn’t until 1983 that the bells — dubbed the official bells of Congress — found a home at the Old Post Office.
“We find that the people who are attracted to the art and science of change-ringing tend to be mathematicians, language types, computer types,” Katie said. This is not to say they don’t have a sensitive side. “When the group is all ringing at the same pace, there’s almost a collective energy in the process that is remarkable.”
Few things stir the heart like a nice peal of bells. Think of Kate Middleton and Prince William emerging from Westminster Abbey. Bells can be melancholy, too. After dozens of Polish government officials lost their lives in a plane crash in 2010, the Old Post Office bells were rung in honor, their clappers muffled with leather to produce a mournful sound.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry has been casting bells for 450 years. (It did the Liberty Bell.) I called it to ask if any of its bells were in hotels.
“I can’t believe that there would be any other change-ringing peals in the world in a hotel,” said Alan Hughes, managing director.
Maybe the bell ringing — and the bell-ringers — could become an attraction at the hotel, you know, like those ducks at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.
“We’re much more entertaining than ducks,” Katie said.
Let’s hope Donald Trump thinks so. I wonder if he’ll want the bells rung every time he gets in and out of his limo.
To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.