The thousands of drivers and passengers who zoom past the familiar Leaning Tower of Niles on Touhy Avenue probably have no idea that the tipsy tower’s crown hides a historical surprise: five bronze bells, three of which appear to be centuries old.
The venerable bells were rediscovered in 2017 after the 1934 tower was sold to the village of Niles by the Leaning Tower YMCA. As part of its ongoing restoration, the village hired the group Chicago Bell Advocates to research the origins of the bells. They say much of the information was right there on the bells themselves, in inscriptions that indicate they were cast in the town of Cavezzo, Italy, in 1623, 1735 and 1747.
Kimberly Schafer, founder of Chicago Bell Advocates, says bells this old are rare in the United States, so they’re well worth the effort to restore. “Bells are important because they're soundmarks. They help define and distinguish a space, and they stand for community values that date back to the Middle Ages. Bells were used to organize communities and they still represent those ideals today,” she said.
The bells haven’t rung for decades – the last public record of the bells being rung is in 1964, when the tower was donated to the YMCA – so Niles residents can be forgiven for not knowing the bells are there at all, even though they’re visible from street level. But Niles Mayor Andrew Przybylo believes the bells can ring in a new era for the suburb as the centerpiece of a park and entertainment district.
“The vision is to have a park and a concert ground and a community center just north of the tower and to have restaurants and an artists’ colony, kind of a work-live environment, overlooking the tower,” he said. “It’s more than a landmark. We want to restore those bells and have weddings out here and play the bells, make those kinds of memories.”
So how did 400-year-old Italian bells cross an ocean to land in a Chicago suburb? That remains a riddle. For one thing, an earthquake in the town of Cavezzo in 2012 scattered its archives to nearby towns for safekeeping, making archival research difficult for the time being. But Schafer says that while research is continuing, the bells’ physical characteristics, like the casting and molding work, is consistent with the inscriptions. “We can gather as much evidence as we can to make a determination that, to say that, well, we're pretty sure that this is a bell of the age that's inscribed on it,” he said.
More is known about the history of the Niles Leaning Tower itself, which local businessman Robert Ilg had built as a comely cover-up for a water tower in 1931. Ilg purchased 22 mostly wooded acres at the site which he used as a recreational getaway for employees of his company, Ilg Electric Ventilating Company. The tower provided pressure for two swimming pools on the property, and according to some accounts, the industrialist opted to give the tower the look of a miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa to honor Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, who legend has it performed experiments with falling weights from the top of the Pisa tower.
Ilg’s slant on the building, which he donated to the YMCA in 1964, is half as tall as the original, but it mimics many aspects of the Pisa tower, even down to the bells’ mounts. “The mounts are special because this is in the Bolognese ringing style. In that style, a tall ringing mount would've acted as a counterweight so that just a few people could ring this bell,” Schafer said. She points out that while in both towers the mounts are made to look like the Bolognese style, neither sets of bell mounts actually swing.
If Przybylo has his way, the tower and its bells will be open to the public in 2019 for visitors to climb up and enjoy another surprise at the top of the tower: a view of Chicago’s celebrated skyline.
“It’s quite magnificent to go all the way up, you can see downtown as clear as a bell,” he said.
Dec. 18: A new illustrated biography takes a close look at the life of the Chicago architect, preservationist and restorer of architectural masterpieces.
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April 14: The 92-story skyscraper is a regular feature of Chicago architecture tours. But a changing political landscape has led some tour guides to be more careful with their comments about the structure.