Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Chapel

By Phillip J. Hoying '09 and Donald Challenger

Like the speaker in Wallace Stevens' enigmatic poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," Hamiltonians have known the Hill's iconic Chapel from many perspectives: as a beacon amid blazing foliage and, a season later, snowy ridges; down campus vistas, through numberless windows and branches in morning light and blue evening. And as in the poem, they know the Chapel by ear, its "noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms" — the Chapel's history as a forum for rhetoric, elocution and public speaking from the 19th century on; the bell that peals the passage of the hours, a lone note linking generations of hurrying students. House of worship, wedding altar, social hub and oasis of solitude, classroom, concert hall, laboratory, dormitory, theatre, site of pranks and protests, memorial to Hamilton's fallen. Until 1872, Chapel space even served as Hamilton's library. In 2002 its quilled cupola became in fact what it had been in effect for generations of alumni — part of the College's official logo, adorning caps, cups, calendars, correspondence.

"No other building," Walter Pilkington wrote in his 1962 history of the Hill, "has been identified so closely with the growth and spirit of the College." And yet this enduring symbol of all that is Hamilton can become so familiar as to recede into the scenery — vaguely acknowledged, half-forgotten, never fully explored. The summer painting of the steeple (that's Vanessa Vore and Dave Aiello of the Utica Painting Co. in the lift on page 28) gave the Alumni Review the opportunity to stop, to look up with a renewed sense of appreciation, and to comb archives and memories for 13 of the Chapel's fascinating chapters.

  1. In 1825 the Board of Trustees, under President Henry Davis, decided that the College's need for a dedicated center of worship was so great that construction on North College residence hall, begun two years earlier, was halted so that resources could be poured into the Chapel. The Chapel was completed in 1827; North College was not finished until 1842 — by coincidence, during the administration of President Simeon North. Davis, North and all the first nine presidents of the College, from Azel Backus through Melancthon Woolsey Stryker, who retired in 1917, were ministers, as was founder Samuel Kirkland.
  2. Ways of looking at the ChapelNoted architect Philip Hooker of Albany is widely credited in College lore (and on a nearby historical marker) for the design of the Chapel, but in fact he created only the tower-and-steeple façade. The main body of the building, with its distinctive third story, was designed by a trustee, John Lothrop of Utica. In the 1960s, efforts were made to determine if the building might be the only surviving example of a three-story chapel in the nation, but they were not definitive; today the Chapel is typically described as "thought to be" the only remaining structure of its type. In 1927 the College commissioned Bagg and Newkirk architects to create these and other drawings of the Chapel so that it could be re-created exactly in case it was ever destroyed by fire.
  3. Ways of looking at the chapel"The tower, I presume," wrote architect Philip Hooker as he began his design in 1825, "ought to contain a clock." And eventually it did — more than a half-century later. The clock and its three faces, directed north, east and south, were not installed until 1877, a gift from John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia merchant and civic leader. Until then, the circular spaces for the clock were plugged with boards and stovepipes. Stories — never substantiated — still circulate that early Hamiltonians used either one of the pipes or perhaps the steeple itself as a sundial.
  4. 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 in his history of the College. 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 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."
  5. The Chapel has housed four bells in its history. The current bell, weighing 1,500 pounds, has been in place since 1902 and according to Pilkington was installed in the middle of a snowstorm and lifted into place by the student body. A similar bell had been installed in 1899 but cracked after two years. The Chapel's first bell weighed a mere 250 pounds, boasted "no power or music," and was replaced in 1867 by an 800-pound bell inscribed Ora et Labora. The current bell, cast by the Meneely Bell Co. of Troy, N.Y., keeps the Latin phrase, meaning "pray and work," St. Benedict's precept of moderation. Student bell-ringers — both officially designated ones and, frequently, pranksters and interlopers — rang the bell by hand until 1950, when the mechanism was automated.
  6. On V-E Day ending World War II in Europe, the bell was rung around the clock by relays of students. On the wall by the eastern third-floor window of what is now the office of Lisa Nassimos, office coordinator for the chaplaincy and COOP, a message scrawled on gray paint that day and never painted over is protected by a wooden frame. It reads: "V-E DAY / MAY 8 1945 / WE RANG / THIS BELL / ALL DAY"
  7. Student bell ringers lived below the steeple, in quarters on the northeast corner of the third floor. Their role in the history of the College is still honored through the Bell Ringer Award, presented each year during Reunion Weekend in recognition of contributions made to the College, its alumni and the community. Clarence Aldridge '45 — both a bell ringer as a student and a Bell Ringer Award recipient — 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."
  8. The early interior was severe, with painful right-angle pews to keep students physically as well as morally upright. Pilkington cites one alumnus who described it as "designed by an old-fashioned deacon who evidently regarded any ornament or comfort as an invention of the devil." The Chapel hall originally took up only the eastern two-thirds of the building, with a false Palladian window on its western wall and classrooms on the far side. The décor became more ornate and colorful — though still gloomy by contemporary standards — through renovations in 1867 and 1897. The first featured improved pews and heating along with oak and black walnut woodwork, the second an apse and gothic limestone arch designed to house an organ. Stained-glass window portraits of namesake Alexander Hamilton and founder Samuel Kirkland were installed in 1899 and remained Chapel icons for a half-century; they were recently placed in a permanent Burke Library display and rededicated during Reunions 2009, thanks to the efforts of Clarence Aldridge '45. Electricity arrived at the Chapel in 1907.
  9. A final major interior renovation in 1948-49 transformed the Chapel hall into the airy, simple and elegant space it is today. In honor of those who died in World War II, it was redesigned to capture the whitewashed look of a traditional New England chapel. Plain glass opened and lit the room, a new organ was moved to the east balcony, and the gothic arch on the western side gave way to open stage and altar space as well as a bright Palladian window. Plaques at the rear of the Chapel now honor 52 Hamiltonians who fell in World War II, 13 in World War I and three in Vietnam, as well as three alumni who were victims of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
  10. 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, Pilkington notes. 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 placed "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 Clarence Aldridge '45 — who left Hamilton to serve in the Navy in the summer of 1943 — recalls that when Hamilton won a football game, "the fraternity pledges would vie for running over here and getting in the belfry and ringing the bell. If we beat Union, they would ring that thing for two or three hours. Three or four of them would ring the bell, and the rest of them would stand in the stairway and fight off the rest of the guys coming from the other fraternities."
  11. More sedate — usually — have been the countless weddings at the Chapel, which can be scheduled year-round by Hamilton alumni and employees, and during the summer by others (no confetti or rice ­permitted, but you're welcome to use the Chapel's six candelabras). Estelle Katchmar and Curtis Wilhelm '40 were married there not long after his graduation. She had been a regular visitor to campus for houseparties and ski trips, and "the Chapel was perfect for us," she says. "My brother picked pussy willows, and Professor [Arthur] Saunders helped decorate with his flowers." (Today, spaces in the renovated Kirner-Johnson building are named for both Curtis Wilhelm, who died in 2002, and Estelle Katchmar Wilhelm.) Katrina Schell '03 and David Kolb '02 had strong ties to the Chapel as well. "I had sung many concerts there in Tumbling After, and Dave had been the musical director of the Sunday church choruses there," Katrina says. "When it came down to it, we wanted to pick a place that felt like it had meaning to both of us, and we also wanted to work with Jeff McArn." The chaplain married the Utica couple a few months after Katrina's graduation.
  12. Every Hamilton generation has its Chapel lore, but few top this ballistic story from Bill Wieting '59, who believes it came from Professor Robert "Bobo" Rudd, Class of 1909. Bobo would visit Wieting's Delta Phi house to "regale us with tales of pranks, houseparties and legends on the Hill," and Wieting places this story between 1952 and the fall of 1955 — "if it actually happened." One day at noon, someone realized that the Chapel bell was actually tolling 13 times. It may not have been the first instance; "the miscreant might have had to do it for days or even weeks" before someone counted. When the 13-count was repeated on later days, the word spread, and soon the entire College was pausing at noon to listen and count. Workmen ruled out a malfunction of the recently installed IBM strike mechanism, which had replaced student bell ringers in 1950. But while they were examining the bell, they found several bright spots on the otherwise weathered bronze, and — according to one version of the story — "a flattened bit of lead" in the tower. "The aetiology of the supernumerary strikes was finally diagnosed: Someone had been adding the 13th 'bong' by hitting the bell with a well-aimed — and equally well-timed — shot from a .22-caliber rifle. Apparently the bullet entered the bell tower through the well-spaced, large louvres there," fired from Middle Dormitory (now Kirkland Residence Hall). "The rifle muzzle was kept well inside a room, shooting through a barely opened window, in order to muffle the report," Wieting says. "The story, as I heard it, didn't include the identity of the Nimrod, whose cleverness included the ability to hide his tracks."
  13. Chapel bellPhill Hoying '09 found that researching this article as he prepared to leave Hamilton led him to a fuller appreciation not only of the Chapel's history, but also its mystery. He was able to ascend the clock tower's "wooden and cobweb-laden staircase," examine the palimpsest of graffiti along its walls, squirm past the bell itself and, finally, gaze down on the campus and across the Mohawk Valley. "The climb to the top," he says, "was like walking through time." Reaching more than 130 feet — the center of the clock face is actually less than half the height of the cupola and weather vane — the top of the Chapel is the highest point on campus, visible across the Mohawk Valley. "During my four years," Hoying says, "I looked up at the steeple — to check the time as I hurriedly rushed to class on the 'dark side' from Ferguson House (as it turns out, I was almost always running late) or to swear at its loudly tolling bell when it awoke me during my first year in Kirkland, or even to ponder those questions about life every college student should take time to ponder during late-night philosophical walks around campus — always with a sense that the Chapel typified the highest ideals of the College. It is graceful, well-proportioned, and simply put, quite beautiful. And yet it is remarkably distinctive. While most college chapels sport a pointed steeple, ours has a rounded cupola with a feather quill weather vane at the very top — symbolic of the College's commitment to teaching the art of communication in all its forms. At night, against the dark sky speckled with stars, the illuminated steeple shines out like a beacon, broadcasting the message: This is a place for higher learning."

Historical information for this feature is drawn in part from Walter Pilkington's Hamilton College 1812/1962 (1962) as well as from a variety of sources in the College Archives. Our thanks to Assistant Archivist Katherine Collett P'03 for her help and guidance.

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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