Few noises walking to class are as conspicuous as the clang of the bells coming from the Burton Memorial Tower every 15 minutes.
Together, the bells compose the Charles M. Baird Carillon, one of the largest instruments in North America.
Though now a fixture of campus, the funds for the bell tower and the carillon took more than a decade to raise.
The first proposal to build a bell tower at the University came in 1919 in the form of an editorial in the Michigan Alumnus magazine, but it took some 16 years for the idea to come to fruition.
In his 1921 commencement address, then-University President Burton suggested the erection of a bell tower to commemorate the 236 University students who lost their lives during World War I.
The idea for a memorial bell tower failed to pick up steam, but after Burton’s death in 1925, Secretary of the University, Shirley Smith, revived the plan with the suggestion to build the bell tower in honor of President Burton.
A fundraising campaign mobilized immediately, with the University’s Alumni Association taking the lead. In addition, every class that graduated during Burton’s time as president agreed to help raise money. The University of Michigan Club of Ann Arbor also made raising funds for the tower a priority.
But with the onset of the Depression, plans had to be abandoned. It wasn’t until 1935, when Charles M. Baird donated a set of carillon bells to the University, that Burton’s bell tower dream could be revived.
The Carillon’s bells were cast in England and range in size from 21 pounds to the more than 12 tons. In addition to the bells, Baird also agreed to donate a clock and the University Musical Society contributed $60,000 to the cause.
On Dec. 4 1936, the tower was officially dedicated. Built of Indiana limestone, it features long shallow buttresses that emphasize its height. The bells are housed on the tenth floor in a 40-foot high chamber that provides ample openings to maximize their sound.
In addition to the bells, the tower is also home to a music library, classrooms and practice rooms, all of which are used by the School of Music, Theatre and Dance.