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The bells have grown silent: A restoration is underway atop Plummer Building

January 21, 2019

The bells have been silent going on four months now, and Austin Ferguson is getting a case of itchy fingers.

Ferguson is only the fourth carillonneur in Mayo Clinic’s history, dating back to 1928 when the 56-bell carillon was installed atop the Plumber Building. The bells went quiet in September when restoration work began on the 90-year instrument.

The renovation is now more than halfway complete. When it is done, it will be the most complete overhaul of the carillon in its history. The entire playing mechanism will have been ripped out and replaced; the bell frame will have been moved up five and half feet; and the 17 highest octave bells will have been remounted. The work is expected to be finished in March.

“We’re keeping the bells and keyboard, but everything else will be new,” Ferguson said.

It is also the longest stretch of time that the instrument’s resonant sounds have not been heard on the Mayo campus and in the downtown.

Ferguson said he isn’t authorized to say how much the renovation cost, but the final figure will be “substantially less” than half a million dollars.

Mayo Clinic is believed to be the only medical center in North America to have a carillon, which consists of cast bronze bells played by a keyboard, said Matt Dacy, museum director at Mayo Clinic. Some may view it as extraneous to Mayo’s mission, but that’s not how Charles and Will Mayo saw it, Dacy said.

“The Mayo brothers believed that the arts, architecture and landscaping are all part of the healing process,” Dacy said. “So this isn’t a nice-to-have decoration, it’s intrinsic to what we do.”

The first set of 23 bell were made in England and blessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury before they were shipped to the U.S. The carillon is a World War I memorial. The bells were inscribed with a dedication to the American soldier, whom the Mayo brothers wanted to honor.

In the 1970s, another set of 23 bells, made in Holland, were given by a Rochester family to bring the number of carillon bells up to 56. It is believed to be largest musical instrument in Minnesota, Dacy said.

Ferguson, who became Mayo’s carillonneur two years ago, said he began advocating for a major renovation early in his tenure. Playing the Rochester Carillon was like fighting it. It could be picky, temperamental — like taming a wild horse.

“That’s the problem with playing the carillon. The most common gripe with players is that they can be identically built, but no two carillons are ever going to feel the same or play the same,” Ferguson said. “It’s the nature of how complicated the instrument is.”

The renovated instrument will be easier to play, he said, because the keyboard will now more directly communicate with the bells. The old carillon was such a complicated system of rollers, bars and pulleys that it nearly imitated a Rube Goldberg system. The work is being done by Christoph Paccard, a bell foundry in Charleston, S.C.

Ferguson said the carillon should sound louder and more polished to listeners, when his daily concerts start back up.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays,” Ferguson said. “It has beautiful bells but had old, outdated mechanisms.”

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