Music of Illinois: The bells of Altgeld Hall

Altgeld Hall Bells University of Illinois President Edmund Janes James poses among 15 bells prior to their installation in the tower of the school library, currently Altgeld Hall. (Photo courtesy of UI Archives)

For nearly a century, University of Illinois students, faculty and alumni have enjoyed noontime concerts performed by bells perched atop Altgeld Hall, constructed in 1897 as University Library. Although plans called for crowning the building with a tower to house bells, the finished space was relegated for use as storage.

Recognizing a lost opportunity when they saw it, the classes of 1914-19 raised funds for 11 bells, while  the classes of 1920 and 1921 donated funds for two additional bells in spring 1920, bringing the count to 13.

“Could ‘Illinois Loyalty’ be played on the 13 bells to-be?” wondered Thomas Arkle Clark, the school’s first Dean of Students. Upon reviewing the composition, he concluded 15 separate notes were required to play the song.

Alumni of the U.S. School of Military Aeronautics, an Army aviation unit that trained on campus and at nearby Chanute Field during World War I, provided funding for the remaining two bells.

Following nearly a quarter century’s wait, the campus formally dedicated the complete set during Homecoming weekend of 1920.