Washington’s Bells: The Bells of Congress

A stone’s throw from the White House (the Secret Service recommends against that) rises one of Washington's few significant Romanesque Revival buildings on a monumental scale: the Old Post Office and Clock Tower. Long one of Washington's favorite landmarks, the Old Post Office was originally built from 1892 to 1899 to house the U.S. Post Office Department Headquarters and the city's post office. 

The building, with its 315-foot high clock tower, was the third highest in Washington at the time of its completion – exceeded only by the U.S. Capitol Building and Washington Monument. Its central enclosed court was one of the largest in the world, and its construction incorporated many of the latest technical innovations of the day, such as steel and iron framing, fireproofing, and an electric power grid. Visible from a distance of several miles, the clock tower has received particular acclaim as an element of great vitality in the otherwise sterile skyline of the Federal Triangle.  

The Bells of Congress find a home.

High in the clock tower, a bronze symbol of friendship between two great nations hangs aloft. The Bells of Congress were a gift to Congress from the Ditchley Foundation, a privately-funded charity founded in 1958 by philanthropist Sir David Wills to support the Transatlantic Alliance between the United States and Europe. Wills was determined to commemorate the bicentenary of American Independence, so he arranged for replicas of the bells of Westminster Abbey to be cast by the Whitechapel Foundry in 1976 (the same foundry that had cast the Abbey's bells four centuries earlier). 

Six years after they were cast, a home was found for the bells in the Old Post Office Tower – only, of course, after some extensive modifications. The tower was not originally designed to hold bells, so much was the work of architects and engineers to retrofit a structure that could accommodate the weight of the bells and the stress of their swings. They were installed in 1982, dedicated in 1983, and continue to be enjoyed to this day. Each bell bears the Great Seal of the United States, together with the Great Seal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. “Wisdom, Courage, Love,” David Wills’ accolade for the American people, is engraved on the largest bell.

Make it ring.

The ring of 10 “peal bells” in the key of D major (tenor 26 cwt) ranges in weight from 581 to 2,953 pounds and from 2 to 4.5 feet in diameter. It takes 10 people pulling heavy ropes from a chamber below (one would assume to protect their hearing) to operate the full set. One person, one rope. Their exhausting work is called change ringing – a form of bell ringing made fashionable in England in the 17th century. It relies on mathematical patterns called “methods,” rather than tuneful melodies, to inform the ringers as to when the rope should next be pulled. It takes roughly two full seconds for a peal bell to ring and be ready to ring again.

Depending on the number of bells employed, the number of permutations (and by extension, the number of sound combinations we hear standing on the ground below) can vary greatly. For instance, a full peal on 10 bells in the tower would consist of 5,040 changes and would take nearly 3.5 hours to complete. As one might deduce, a full peal is only attempted on special occasions. Here’s another interesting fact: it would take approximately 123 days, ringing continuously day and night, to toll all the possible mathematical permutations on 10 bells. We can’t imagine the neighbors, particularly the First Family at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., would be too pleased. Today, there are roughly 50 towers dotted across the United States and Canada with English change ringing bells. The Washington, D.C. metro area boasts four of those: Washington National Cathedral; Old Post Office Tower; Calvary United Methodist Church in Frederick, Maryland; and Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia.

At the Old Post Office, a full peal may be rung in honor of the opening and closing of Congress, national observations and holidays (like Martin Luther King Jr. Day), and State occasions. Weekly practice sessions (currently scheduled for Thursday evenings) are organized by the bells' stewards, members of the Washington Ringing Society of the North American Guild of Change Ringers. The bells are best heard from a vantage point at the corner of Pennsylvania Ave. and 12th St. NW.  

Want to visit the Old Post Office Tower?

You can! The National Park Service provides interpretive programming within the Old Post Office Tower under an agreement with the building's owner, the General Services Administration. Visitors enter the building from the south entrance (near the Starbucks on 12th St. NW just south of Pennsylvania Ave.) and ascend in a glass elevator to the ringing chamber. Red, white, and blue ropes hang through the ceiling that trained ringers pull to sound the bells.  

From there, a second elevator transports visitors to the 270-foot observation deck above the bell chamber, which affords a panoramic view of the city. The viewing deck is not enclosed, so dress for the weather. Admission is free during hours of operation: 9:00am to 5:00pm daily (last entry at 4:30pm), except Thanksgiving and Christmas.