For years, every day at noon, the Netherlands Carillon bells would play a medley of armed forces music. For the last few months, they have been silenced. I live in the Radnor district of Arlington, and several neighbors commented about missing the medley. Will the noontime bells ever return?
— Robert F. Ryan,
Do not ask for whom the bells toll. Right now, they’re not tolling for anybody.
“We are attempting to reconcile the issue,” the National Park Service’s Matt Virta, cultural resources program manager at the George Washington Memorial Parkway, wrote in an e-mail to Answer Man. He explained that there is a problem with the machinery that allows automated concerts.
Those are the computer-driven Netherlands Carillon concerts that are usually heard daily at noon and 6. In the summer, human beings perform music live on Saturdays.
The carillon has been called the colossus of keyboard instruments. The Netherlands Carillon has 50 bells, ranging in size from eight inches high and weighing 42 pounds to six feet high and tipping the scales at 6 1/2 tons. A carillonneur sits at a wooden keyboard halfway up the metal tower, pummeling away at levers and pedals with hands and feet.
It strikes Answer Man that this particular carillon has always seemed a little snakebit. It was a gift from the people of the Netherlands, formally announced during a 1952 visit by Queen Juliana. She presented a model of the carillon that was installed temporarily in Meridian Hill Park.
The bells were cast in Holland and arrived in 1954. But where exactly to put many tons’ worth of bells? You can’t just stick a carillon anywhere. While the Park Service pondered where they might go, the bells hung in a steel framework in the Polo Field in West Potomac Park.
Around the same time, the government was deciding what was to become of the Nevius tract, 25 acres on the Virginia side of the Potomac River near Arlington National Cemetery. It was owned by the federal government, but some Arlington politicians wanted it returned to local control so the land could be developed.
President Truman ordered it to stay in government hands. And that’s where the carillon would go. Eventually.
After donating the bells, the Dutch also had to pony up funds for the tower in which to hang them. In 1958, Dutch Ambassador J.H. Van Roijen explained that the tower had been planned as a gift for some time, “but we have been having a minor recession in our country, and it was a little difficult to get the money.”
The 127-foot bell tower was finally completed in 1960. It sits on a granite platform, and its entrance is flanked by two bronze lions designed by Dutch sculptor Paul Koning.
When it works, the Netherlands Carillon — surrounded in spring by a sea of tulips — makes a joyous sound. As Answer Man read the news clips, it became apparent that a carillon works for about 10 or 20 years before it needs repair. What would you expect of a musical instrument that’s kept out in the elements?
In 1970, The Post’s Hank Burchard accompanied carillonneur Frank P. Law to the carillon. The interior was speckled with pigeon droppings. The bells were corroded from pollution. As Law played, the clapper spring on the low C pedal bell broke. This happened frequently, he said, necessitating improvisation to avoid busted pedals and clappers. More alarming was the way the tower swayed when the larger bells were sounded. Law proclaimed the poor upkeep of the Netherlands Carillon a “national disgrace.”
Suitably chastened, the Park Service spent $300,000 to restore the bells and the tower, including screening out pigeons. Carillonneurs from around the world could play the instrument with confidence.
By 1994, the carillon had again fallen on hard times. Some of the bells were so deteriorated that it would have been easier to cast new ones. But as the bells themselves were historic — a gift from Dutch citizens grateful for U.S. help during and after World War II — they were repaired. A group of Dutch businessmen raised $1.4 million to retune the bells, shaving metal from the inside to achieve the correct pitch. In 1995, the carillon chimed again.
There’s no estimate on when the computer controls will be fixed, allowing the carillon’s automated performances to resume.
On Monday, I kicked off the annual Washington Post Helping Hand fundraising drive. Between now and Jan. 8, I’ll be sharing stories of three remarkable charities in the D.C. area: Sasha Bruce Youthwork, Community of Hope and Homestretch. Each works with homeless families or teens, getting them out of shelters, into stable homes and onto the path of self-sufficiency.
Last year, Post readers donated a total of $213,262.82 to the three groups. I’ve set this year’s goal at $250,000. I hope you will help us get there. For more information, and to donate, visit posthelpinghand.com.
Send your questions about the Washington area to email@example.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.