A towering legacy
Storied history, legacy surround one of MSU's most iconic structures
Ray McLellan, university carillonneur, explains how to play the Beaumont Tower carillon and describes its unique style.
When Alex Dunn kissed his girlfriend in the shadow of the Beaumont Tower, the MSU alumnus said to her, “You know what they say, right?”
The couple shyly laughed off the long-standing romantic legend that surrounds the tower — sweethearts who kiss in its shadow are destined to marry.
Sure enough, two years later, with snow falling lightly around the couple, Dunn got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend, in the place he had kissed her in the beginning of their relationship.
“I felt like I was a part of history,” said Dunn, who now has been married for about three months.
Dunn isn’t the only Spartan who has a personal tie with one of the most recognized structures on campus. Beaumont Tower has created a resounding echo in the lives of many with its long and colorful history , a history that many will experience again as they flock to campus Saturday for the MSU vs. Purdue football game.
An 85-year-old icon
Beaumont Tower has not been a part of campus since MSU’s conception. Rather, it serves as a monument to commemorate the former location of one of the most significant buildings for the university.
Shortly after the university was established in 1855, College Hall, the nation’s first building for the study of scientific agriculture, was built to serve as the academic hub of the campus.
Lynne Goldstein, MSU professor of anthropology, said the foundation of College Hall was so terribly built that the building was constantly undergoing renovation. In 1918, College Hall finally collapsed.
It was during this time Americans were in the thick of World War I, and the university had many military ties. The remains of MSU’s first academic building were replaced by an artillery shed.
“One of (MSU’s alumni) came back to visit and was appalled,” Goldstein said. “He was appalled that College Hall was gone, (but) he was more appalled by the fact that the artillery shed was there instead.”
That student was John Beaumont, from the class of 1882. Beaumont and his wife, Alice, provided the funds to build something to commemorate the very beginning of the university.
Construction for the tower began in 1927, and took almost a year to complete.
The brick and limestone tower was finished in 1928 and was dedicated on June 22, 1929, according to the MSU Archives.
The tower originally cost $110,437 to build, equivalent to about $1.5 million today. The tower is 104.67 feet tall at its highest pinnacle.
Goldstein said the highest spire, which has been the subject of debate, can be attributed to the tower’s collegiate gothic architecture. The Sower carving of a man planting seeds on the structure is in honor of the university’s agricultural background.
“College Hall and Beaumont Tower, in a sense, are the same thing,” Goldstein said.
Pounding out the music
The tower, which is widely noticed for its music, contains an instrument called a carillon at the top of the tower.
However, at the time of the tower’s dedication, there were only 10 bells — 39 bells short of the current total.
Ray McLellan, the university carillonneur, said 10 bells defined the instrument as a chime.
“The first person to play the bells was the athletic director,” McLellan said, laughing.
Throughout the years, and a series of renovations, bells gradually were added to create the current 49-bell carillon.
According to MSU Archives, from 1987 to 1996, the bells of Beaumont Tower were silenced due to decades worth of wear and tear. In 1996, the bells chimed once more after construction and a rededication ceremony.
McLellan, who learned to play the carillon in 1989, started performing on the Beaumont Tower carillon in 1997.
Every Tuesday at noon, McLellan climbs the 73 steps in the tower to play the carillon.
“I’m hoping that I’ll have a long life,” said McLellan, in reference to the exercise he gets climbing the steps.
The carillon is played using a keyboard attached by wires to clappers inside the bells. The instrument is physically demanding, requiring the carillonneur to pound on it using both his or her fists, as well as feet.
The space where the carillon is played is roomy enough for a couple chairs and about five or six people.
McLellan said the heaviest bell in the Beaumont Tower bell set weighs 2.5 tons and the smallest bell weighs 15 pounds.
“It’s interesting when you’re actually playing the carillon, you can play so soft but you can play really loud,” McLellan said.
McLellan said anything can be played on the carillon, from the “Michigan State Fight Song,” to popular music to classical music. He added that he tries to play timely music around major holidays.
From time to time, some of McLellan’s students play the carillon. At times, songs from films like “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” have rang out across campus.
While McLellan is not behind the tower’s hourly and quarterly chimes, he is responsible for the complicated musical pieces the tower produces.
“A lot of students don’t realize that somebody plays the keyboard instrument,” McLellan said.
McLellan gives a noon recital every Tuesday, and everyone is welcome to come in the tower to watch him play the carillon.
Zachary Smith, supply chain management sophomore, followed the sound of the bells to the tower during the recital on Oct. 8. He watched McLellan play and even climbed in the bell chamber to take a closer look at the bells.
“I thought it was really neat,” Smith said. “I really liked seeing the actual bells.”
McLellan also offers carillon lessons to anyone interested in trying out the instrument.
“It’s the original heavy metal music — you can be so expressive on this instrument,” McLellan said.
A symbol for Spartans
While McLellan and the carillon occupy the third and fourth floor of the tower, the keys to the second floor are held by the Tower Guard, an MSU sophomore student honor society.
Brendan Mullan, Tower Guard historian and Lyman Briggs sophomore, said the organization uses Beaumont Tower for its executive board meetings and offers annual public tours in the fall and spring.
“To me, it’s a symbol of the future and of what Michigan State is all about,” Mullan said.
Sarah Ombry, public relations chair of Tower Guard and an advertising sophomore, said when students are on campus, many don’t truly recognize and acknowledge the tower. However, these students’ reverence blossoms when explaining the structure to others.
“It’s a symbol of pride for students,” Ombry said.
The beauty and significance of the tower is not lost on MSU alumni, either.
Curtis Fideler, MSU alumnus from the class of 1987, said walking by the Beaumont Tower was a part of his daily routine as a student and he also sees it regularly on his framed diploma. The tower still stands as a marker of MSU for him.
“It invokes memories of the past,” Fideler said. “It provides that connectivity to when you were a student. It always comes full circle.”
Alumna Sue Petrisin, associate director of the MSU Alumni Association, said the traditions surrounding the tower have not changed since she was a student.
“Beaumont Tower is a visual representation of MSU and its storied history,” Petrisin said. “It embodies the beauty and majesty of campus.”
Dunn, who still is connected to his alma mater through his work at the MSU Federal Credit Union, has a special place in his heart for Beaumont Tower.
“It’s not only a mark of Michigan State’s campus, which I just love, it’s a beautiful thing,” Dunn said. “It’s a very romantic place as well.”