ALLENDALE, Mich. (May 13, 2014) — Perhaps it can be considered the main attraction on the Grand Valley State University campus in Allendale. If nothing else, it’s the focal point. People know it, recognize, and can literally hear it for miles around. It’s the Cook Carillon Tower in the middle of campus. But what is it?
In the early 1990s GVSU had the idea of erecting a clock tower, a beacon that would stand high and proud in the middle of campus where it could be seen by everyone. Along with the thought, came the idea of installing carillon bells (making it a carillon tower). By definition, a carillon is a set of stationary bells hung in a tower and sounded by manual or pedal action, or by machinery. It requires at least 23 bells, although the GVSU carillon consists of 48 such bells hand-made in the Netherlands.
While the carillon bells will chime every quarter hour automatically, it can also be played (like an instrument) by hand and is usually done so Monday through Friday at noon during the warm season months, plus there are actually Sunday evening summertime concerts (all free). The player? Carillonneur Julianne VandenWyngaard. She began teaching at GVSU in 1967 and is a full professor of music.
“The university was serious enough about my doing it that they sent me to the carillon school in the Netherlands. And so I was there four summers and I have a degree from that school,” says Julianne. She seemed like the logical choice to play the carillon since the instrument is arranged like a keyboard. Already having been a pianist, it came easier for Julianne to transition to the carillon.
While the Cook Carillon Tower is celebrating its 20 year anniversary in 2014, we got the chance to tour the tower inside. There are 61 stairs to the top of the carillon room, then a small hatch leads to the next level where the actual bells are located. The biggest bell is about 3,000 pounds, while the smallest can fit in the palm of your hand at about 14 pounds.
It was a donation by Peter and Pat Cook that financed the approximate $750,000 tower project that was completed in 1994. Clearly, the beaming tower has become iconic for GVSU and the surrounding community itself. Carillon towers have been in existence since the 1400 and 1500s in the Netherlands and Belgium. The first carillon tower wasn’t installed in the United States until 1922. It’s also important to note that Julianne is one of only 200 people in this country to be an accomplished carillonneur.
If you ever hear bells ringing out in downtown Grand Rapids, that’s because that campus also has a carillon tower. Click here to access the GVSU concert series schedule, including carillon performances.