Saved by the bell? A look at what’s inside Century Tower

  • 4 min to read
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Wade FitzGerald, 22-year-old UF music senior, plays “Milonga” by Ronald Barnes on the carillon in Century Tower. FitzGerald has played the piano since he was five and learned to play the carillon his sophomore year, when he enrolled in the UF Carillon Studio. “You get to learn an instrument,” he said about the studio program, “and you get to brag to people that you play one of the rarest instruments in the world.”

One-hundred and fifty-seven feet tall. Sixty-one bells. Almost 12 flights of stairs.

Your calves are burning. There is sweat in places you didn’t know you could sweat. You are now over 100 feet above campus grounds and looking down at the throngs of students in Turlington Plaza. As they move from class to class, the beautiful ring of carillon bells signal the hour. You have just climbed this infamous tower.

Inside, there is a small white-walled room filled by a huge wooden keyboard instrument. The 61-bell instrument, a carillon, is the pride and joy of Century Tower. Not only is it the signature sound of UF’s most famous landmark, but it is the sound of the campus.

Century Tower is one of the most famous landmarks on the UF campus, and its impressive walls of cast stone and brick carry over six decades of campus history.

The tower’s construction started in 1953 during the centennial celebration of the university’s founding and was completed in 1956. It was dedicated to students who served during WWI and WWII. According to a 1953 edition of The Alligator, around 12,000 people donated to the Memorial Century Tower construction fund.

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The bell tower, which was not filled with real bells until 1976, was designed in the Collegiate Gothic style, similar to the previously built University Auditorium and Murphree Hall on campus.

Charlie Hailey, a UF architecture professor, said the Gothic details are most prominent in the belfry and nuanced arches. The Collegiate Gothic style links buildings to older traditions of learning, he said.

“A particular place, in a particular location and town, certainly has its own identities,” Hailey said. “[UF architecture has] a certain identity, whether it’s red brick or whether it’s cast stone or pre-cast details or the actual stone in the older buildings.”

UF’s original campus design by 19th-century architect William Augustus Edwards called for a Gothic bell tower. Century Tower fulfilled those original designs and ended up being placed in what would develop into the heart of campus.

Hailey said its location has the advantages of exposure and orientation.

“It’s important that it’s at the corner,” he said, gesturing to the intersection of Newell Drive and Stadium Road. “People can use it as a reference point.”

Not only does the tower serve as a great navigational tool across university grounds, but it serves as a musical timekeeper. The tower rings every hour and has two student performances every weekday at 12:35 p.m. and 4:35 p.m. during the fall semester. On a clear and cool day, its clock-strikes can be heard for at least a half-mile radius.

“The acoustic presence on campus, to me, is as powerful, if not more powerful, than its actual architecture,” Hailey said. “The way [the tower] links the whole campus, just through its sound, is a huge lesson.”

Century Tower’s 61-bell carillon is one of only four carillons in the state of Florida, according to the World Carillon Federation tower directory.

“There are only a handful of schools in the country that have carillons, and Florida’s program is especially good,” said 22-year-old UF music senior Wade FitzGerald.

FitzGerald has studied under Laura Ellis in the Carillon Studio for the past three years and intends on continuing his carillon career after graduation. He will begin a fellowship at Bok Tower Gardens in the spring. There, he will study with Geert D’hollander, a world-renowned carillonneur.

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For students like FitzGerald, a piano player who had never touched a carillon before coming to UF, the university's carillon program was the first step toward a potential life-long career. FitzGerald encouraged freshmen to look into the carillon program.

“If you play piano, if you know music at all, and you’re interested in doing something fun and unique, go for it,” he said. “Because this is something — UF is the only school in Florida that has it.”

Century Tower is unique as an instrument, even when compared to other bell towers. FitzGerald has played approximately 10 different bell towers across the nation.

“That’s the cool thing about carillon: every tower is completely different,” he said. “You know, you might be able to play the notes, but to really play something musically — how you want it to sound — you’re going to have to play around on it for a while.”

Composers often write music with specific carillons in mind. Compositions for Century Tower are usually focused on school spirit. For example, there are unique arrangements of UF’s fight song, “Orange and Blue,” and alma mater that sound best when played on Century Tower’s carillon.

Century Tower’s school spirit is highlighted on campus tours, as well.

UF Cicerone Courtland Campo, a 19-year-old UF advertising major with a minor in history, said Century Tower is one of his personal favorite stops when he gives tours to prospective students and their families. Tour groups often talk about the history of University Auditorium, Century Tower and Turlington.

Campo said it is also common for Cicerones to tell “tower jokes” at the location.

“The usual one is, when you first get there, you say, ‘It’s a beautiful, tall structure right here. No, I’m not talking about me. It’s Century Tower,’” he said.

Cicerones are allowed to personalize their tour material. Campo said he has a deep appreciation for the tower’s history and music, so he shares that with his audiences. Campo had a chance to go inside Century Tower and see the carillon while being trained as a Cicerone. He also had the chance to speak to UF carillonneurs.

“I asked them what their favorite songs were to play. And one of them said, ‘The Sound of Music.’ And then the other said ‘7 rings’ by Ariana Grande. I did not expect that one.”

Campo said a remodeling of the tower could be interesting. There are currently a series of unused rooms inside Century Tower visible from the staircase. Campo said the empty space could be turned into an art gallery or museum exhibit. He pointed out issues with renovation could include ADA accessibility and the availability of air conditioning.

Despite the possibilities for renovation, historical preservation comes first.

“It’s spots like Tower that maybe aren’t as well-loved, and I still think need to be protected,” he said. “I’d love to see that from the students — a deeper appreciation for the history and maybe not the sports or research that we’re doing, although those two things are great.”