Quincy MA – Last Thursday I had the opportunity to tour United First Parish Church of Quincy’s recently restored bell tower. The building is the resting place of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams and their wives, hence its nickname Church of Presidents. It is also recognized for its architectural significance. Designed in 1828 by Alexander Parris, it exemplifies the transition from Georgian and Federal to Greek Revival architectural styles. It is also one of the earliest examples of native granite as a building material in the United States.
A new bell was installed on January 25th, the last step in the restoration process. The previous bell was founded in 1859 but had been quiet since it cracked many years ago. Parish leaders bought the replacement bell from a church in Chicago for $38,000 and had it inscribed with a quotation by John Hancock, an early pastor at the church and father of the revolutionary leader of the same name. This bell was cast in 1895.
The repairs coincide with a larger planning effort to create a public park between the Church and Town Hall, replacing the portion of Hancock Street that currently divides them. This, in turn, will be the focal point of the New Quincy Center, the $1.6 billion project that hopes to revitalize Quincy’s downtown.
Interestingly, the bell and clocks are owned by the City, while the tower itself is owned by the Parish. This arrangement recalls the historic relationship between church and state in America. Not until 1824 were the two entities officially separated from one another. Since the bell and clocks had important civic functions of announcing the time and alerting citizens of fires and other emergencies, the town decided it had to maintain control of them.
The bell tower provides a fascinating glimpse into construction and engineering of almost two hundred years ago, while simultaneously chronicling changes to the church building through its history. I followed the Reverend Sheldon Bennett up a normal old wooden staircase, a two-storey spiral staircase (one of whose steps cracked on the way up), and two wooden ladders to reach the small opening that leads to the cupola. The Reverend shared his knowledge of the history of the building along the way. All of the granite, with the exception of the pillars at the entrance, was quarried on President John Adams’ property. The clocks on each of the tower’s four sides are controlled by a single system of gears located in the center of that floor, protected by a cozy wooden hut. Signatures from parishioners dating back to the clock’s installation animate the hut’s walls. Wooden beams that originally supported roofs align with lengths of steel that have taken over their weight-bearing role. An arch made of granite blocks is concealed above the first floor ceiling to provide additional support for the doorway below.
Once we reached the bell, Rev. Bennett showed how there are two ways to ring it. Every hour on the hour a hammer taps its outside bottom edge, while the clapper inside the bell is reserved for special occasions and produces a much louder sound. A digital device near the choir controls the clapper, while a switch near the clock gears controls the hammer. It’s a thrill to have the bell working again.
Photo by Kara Chisholm
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Correction: This post originally incorrectly stated Cincinnati was the location of the bell before Quincy. Corrected to Chicago. The author apologizes for the error.