Walking around University Circle, the sound of vibrant bells swells on the wind. A mighty tone ebbs and flows, rings and clatters from the 140-foot high McGaffin Tower atop the Church of the Covenant. Some days, the bells ring pious and pragmatic; on others, the music vibrates with Disney- and pop-influenced rigor.
Those rich sounds you’re hearing are the McGaffin Carillon, whose bells have sung across the circle since 1968 when they were manufactured and installed by Royal Eijsbouts Bell Foundry from the Netherlands. By today’s standard, the project would cost around $1 million.
“[The bells] memorialize the tower to Alexander McGaffin, who was the minister when this building was built,” carillon player George Leggiero says.
As the instrument’s chief player — a carillonneur, as they’re called — Leggiero wants people to know the instrument as more than a piece of the church, but as a piece of the community. He’s been playing the carillon for most of its life, starting in 1973 as a college student seeking a music minor.
To achieve their restorative goal, he and a group called the Friends of McGaffin Carillon — formed in 2015 — have challenged themselves to raise awareness for the historic instrument and a sum of more than $600,000 to fund its restoration. The project would include two new gargantuan bells to complete the lower octave.
Not every carillon is played so often as the McGaffin, Leggiero stresses as he leads a small group up the tight, spiral staircase to the tower. There are fewer than 200 in the country, according to the Friends, and only one in Cleveland.
“There’s been somebody to play ever since [McGaffin’s] were installed,” Leggiero says. “That doesn’t happen at every church.”
Ascending the tower feels like a snapshot into a bygone era, or perhaps more like a scene from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The cramped stairwell gives way to a large stone chamber where only a few stacks of files and the occasional desk tell the group we are still in 2023. The stonework stands solid and proud, hardly changed since the tower was erected in 1911.
Leggiero leads the group further, up another spiral staircase, and practically leaves us in the dust as we nervously shuffle upward.
Finally, we make our way into the console room and the intrigue, or perhaps shock, is palpable as we take in the carillon.
There, in a space roughly half the size of the chamber below, sits a worn wooden piano of sorts called a clavier. As if someone dismantled a dozen lying Pinocchios, the instrument presents a jumble of jutting levers of tapered wood — the keys — and matching pedals at the bottom played by foot.
Like the puppet himself, a series of wires connects each lever to corresponding clappers in a chamber above us. Those large swinging mallets then strike each of the 47 bells weighing more than 15,000 pounds in total. How loud each bell plays depends on the puppeteer, Leggiero, and how hard he strikes each lever.
“They can’t be muffled after you play a note,” he warns. “You hear it for quite a while if I make a mistake.”
He sits at the console and hits a lever harder than you’d ever dare strike a piano key. The room fills with a raucous clatter: wood hitting wood, metal wires yanking and pulling and the bells above filling a half-mile radius with a deep radiance.
George uses nearly his entire body, looking more like a percussion player as fists and feet strike their mark.
“As a piece of the community, we play any music, too, not just religious,” says Aquene Kimmel, a Friend of the McGaffin Carillon who helps with social media. Another friend and carillonneur, Keiran Cantilina, has been known to learn snippets of Disney songs and pop hits on the fly, she says.
The initial high wears off and the group finally notices McGaffin Tower’s wear and tear. The situation doesn’t seem dire, but even a sum of more than half-a-million dollars sounds quaint for the restoration.
Pinocchio’s noses are well worn and the pads that protect them from rubbing or striking against other bits are thin and warped. Clock and automatic play functions need maintaining. A dismantled clapper on the floor for display shows years of Northeast Ohio rust, and there are dozens of oxidizing metal fasteners and hinges connecting just one key to a single bell.
The bells themselves are in decent shape, given their more than 50 years next to Lake Erie; however, it’s no easy feat cleaning and restoring them and some of the bolts and hinges have rusted to the point of breaking.
Many of these mechanisms need replaced and repainted, especially with the addition of the two new bells for which the McGaffin recently secured funds. The new Eb and Bb notes alone will add another 40% of the original 15,000 pounds — bells big enough to lounge in.
The restoration would protect the instrument for years and allow the McGaffin to collect more Friends. Just last year, Leggiero improvised music to automated images and emojis tweeted by artist Cory Arcangel for the FRONT Triennial. Leggiero sees other opportunities for local students around University Circle, as well.
“It’s a community instrument,” he says. “It’s been played on Sundays and occasional holidays and whatever all the time, but we want to see it played more. On most university campuses where there’s a carillon there’s a student guild, and they play every day. You get all sorts of eclectic stuff that students will play. We ultimately want to get there, and we’re raising funds to do a full restoration of the instrument because we can’t play it that heavily right now.”
He goes on to stress the importance of staying up-to-date on modern audio and video connections, a feature that allows the McGaffin to stream performances or record music. While there’s still much to do — namely the disassembly and cleaning of the instrument, replacing wires, replacing clappers, new bolts and hinges and an entirely new clavier — Friends of the McGaffin Carillon have made strides since the group’s inception in 2015.
Phase one of the restoration saw the replacement of peal clappers, new motors, a new control mechanism and the peal rehung on fresh yokes and bolts. With this, the McGaffin’s Cragin Peal — three bells that swing instead of being struck like the others — rang out for the first time in decades, just in time for the 50th anniversary in 2018.
In 2021, the Friends accepted a donation for a new practice instrument fabricated by Friends director and guest carillonneur Patrick Macoska, providing a means for new players to learn without further damaging the main clavier.
As of June, the McGaffin Carillon still needs more than $170,000 to complete the restoration but, when it’s done, Leggiero envisions generations of Cleveland carillon players.
“We have a lot of people in the church who are supporting, and they give us some of the biggest donations,” Leggiero says. “But 52% of the people who’ve given [donations] over our history are from the community. We see it and the church felt that way, too — it’s a community instrument and it ought to be heard.”
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