Chapel Timeline

1827 (first-known photograph of Hamilton College, circa 1860)
Chapel opens. The main body of the building, with its distinctive third story, designed by College Trustee John Lothrop of Utica. Noted architect Philip Hooker of Albany designed the tower-and-steeple façade.

1867 (not seen photo of this, maybe use another old photo)
First major renovation introduces benches, replacing straight-backed puritanical seats, and a furnace for heat.

1907 (this is important, but, not sure about photo. Maybe shot at night or outdoor lantern)
Electricity arrives.

1877 (clock)
Three-faced tower clock installed — a gift from John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia merchant and civic leader. 

1897 (see if Kathy Collett has any photos of commencements in chapel)
Classrooms removed, freeing the nave for meetings. Beginning with the Class of 1898 and continuing until 1946, Commencement exercises took place in the Chapel.

1902 (closeup of bell used in Chapel Bell Society stuff)
The current bell, weighing 1,500 pounds, installed during a snowstorm and lifted into place by students. (A similar bell had been installed in 1899 but cracked after two years. Two earlier bells, each smaller in size and capable of only modest peals, preceded that one.) 

1945 (handwritten names in the tower; p. 220 of Bicentennial book)
May 8 to be exact — V-E Day, ending World War II in Europe, marked on campus with relays of students ringing the Chapel bell for eight straight hours. 

1948-49 (interior)
Interior redesigned to capture the whitewashed look of a traditional New England chapel. Chapel rededicated in honor of Hamilton’s war dead. Today, plaques honor 52 alumni who fell in World War II, 13 in World War I, and three in Vietnam, as well as three who were victims of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

1972 (sign)
Chapel added to the National Register of Historic Places; thought to be the last remaining three-story church of its era in the U.S.

2002 (logo)
Quilled cupola becomes part of the College’s official logo.


In the Chapel ...

Bell Ringers
Whether alerting students to the start of class or summoning them to worship, the Chapel bells pealed thanks to the work of diligent student bell ringers who rang the device by hand.  Bell ringers lived below the Chapel steeple, in quarters on the northeast corner of the third floor. Clarence Aldridge ’45 remembers: “It was stark. There were four iron railing beds with skinny mattresses on them, four highboy dressers, and then over across the inside wall there were four closets that were like stalls with a door on them. Behind the first window [at the northeast corner] was the lavatory — no shower.” Adjacent was a room with desks, “little wooden ones with rickety chairs…. Over the years, the various occupants were able to acquire a rug or an easy chair that was worn out.” The job of student bell-ringers became obsolete in 1950 when a mechanism was installed to automate the bell ringing.

Chapel “rows” between classes were a testosterone-fueled tradition in the College’s all-male days, with “bruised bodies, battered heads and torn clothing” the usual outcome, noted Walter Pilkington in his 1962 history of the College. Pranks included bringing livestock into the Chapel and stealing pews and organ pipes. Overhead, the Chapel bell and steeple were a constant magnet for mischief. The College installed “Josh Billings spikes” around the steeple in the 19th century, intended to prevent students from scaling it from the outside via the lightning rod. (Billings was the pen name of Henry Wheeler Shaw, who as a student was “separated” from the College in the 1830s for his climbing antics and went on to fame as a humorist.) In a less hazardous vein, generations of freshmen would “ring off the rust,” commandeering the steeple to ring the bell through the night at the end of the year. And when Hamilton won a football game, fraternity pledges would race to the Chapel and vie for turns ringing the bell in celebration.

Calls to Worship
In the early years of the Chapel, students were called to daily 6 a.m. religious services by the bell, “which rang for two minutes — to dress in — and tolled for three — to get to Chapel,” Pilkington noted. The hour was a source of misery, especially in the bitter dark of winter mornings — the Chapel was heated by a lone stove in the center of the hall — and services eventually were pushed back to 7 and then to 8 a.m. In 1936, compulsory weekday-morning services were cut to thrice a week. “The resentment against it by the undergraduates was so deep-seated that I feel that any benefits which might have been derived from compulsory week-day chapel were defeated by the attitude of the men,” wrote Meredith Conley ’36 in the Hamilton Alumni Review. In 1942, services were moved to noon; mandatory attendance eventually dwindled to once a week, and the requirement was dropped altogether in 1965 following years of sometimes acrimonious debate and at least one student protest in 1964. A Board of Trustees committee cited “a reluctance, as a matter of principle, to associate compulsion with religious worship.”

Public Speaking
In the early days before athletics teams and extracurricular activities, debate and speaking contests lured students to the Chapel, and for many years students were required to complete four years of public speaking courses.  As Clarence Aldridge ’45 noted in his half-century annalist letter, “Although most students complained about the four-year requirement, most alumni praised its everlasting value. The freshman course was known as Declamation. The student was required to stand on the platform in the Chapel before a class of 30 or more freshmen and heckling sophomores, and recite a speech from memory. It was a very nerve-racking exercise for most of us, and although the experience was indelibly impressed into memory, nobody can remember the speech — nobody, that is, except Charlie Lee ’45. He was so apprehensive and totally distraught over his first declamation that he ended up having an emergency appendectomy the night before. When Charlie came out of the anesthesia in the recovery room, he was heard reciting his speech. To this day, he can recite, word-for-word, the opening line, which was: “The fate of the American people rests more surely on our souls than on our weapons…’ I guess the moral of the story was, if you want to be sure to remember something, have your appendix removed.”

Bell Ringer Award
Since 1970, the Bell Ringer Award has been presented each year to a member of the Hamilton family in recognition of contributions made to the College, its alumni, and the community.  See all winners.

— Some material borrowed from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Chapel” (Summer 2009 edition of Hamilton Alumni Review).


Tell Us Your Story
Did you catch a terrific performance or lecture in the Chapel? Fight nerves as you stood to deliver a speech? Return to get married? Please share your Chapel memory!

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