Washington’s Bells: Robert A. Taft Memorial and Carillon

On a chilly morning in mid-April 1959, a crowd of 5,000 gathered just north of the U.S. Capitol in a shaded grove of stately willow oaks and fluttering Yoshino cherries. With President Dwight D. Eisenhower looking on, former President Herbert Hoover was delivering a poignant eulogy – remarking on a life well lived and a patriot untimely lost. Vice President Richard Nixon, in his role as President of the Senate, stood ready to accept a towering structure to the Capitol grounds.

“What does matter is that the essential virtues among men and women which made this country strong, which built great cities and verdant farms out of a wilderness, which stand for moral principles in public life, be preserved by reminders of such men as Robert A. Taft,” Hoover was saying. “Fortunately, in the belfry of this monument there is a magnificent carillon. When these great bells ring out, it will be a summons to integrity and courage.”

Who was Robert A. Taft?

Robert Alphonso Taft (September 8, 1889 – July 31, 1953), grandson of Attorney General and Secretary of War Alphonso Taft, son of President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft, and U.S. Senate majority leader who represented Ohio in the Senate from 1938 to 1953, had died suddenly from cancer while in office. His colleagues had called him “Mr. Republican.” 

So respected a statesman was he, and so willing to work across the aisle to effect change, that within a year of Taft’s passing, a foundation was formed for the express purpose of establishing a fitting memorial to him. Within two years (July 1955), Congress had authorized a site for this memorial through S. Con. Res. 44 (84th Congress, 1st session), which was passed by the Senate and House of Representatives. Over $1.2 million was raised from private donations for the construction (it was the first public memorial to be erected entirely with private funds). No public funds were required.

Within six years, the memorial was ready – an astounding feat, if you know much about Congress or Washington, D.C. On April 13, 1959, the day before the dedication, a cornerstone ceremony was held to lock a small alabaster elephant, a handful of coins, and other memorabilia within the walls of the memorial. Taft remains the first senator in history to be honored with a memorial in the nation’s capital, and his is the first public memorial to be erected on Capitol grounds.

The memorial’s design

The Robert A. Taft Memorial and Carillon looms over 11 stories above Constitution Ave., a short stroll from Union Station and the Freedom Bell, between New Jersey Ave. and First St. NW. The towering carillon is tucked away off the National Mall and offers a quiet refuge from the bustle of Capitol Hill. It is easily distinguishable in its environs. Granite steps from Deer Island, Maine, rise to meet a cool basin moat enlivened with jets of water. The memorial’s base of dark brown Cornellian marble from Cold Springs, Minnesota, measuring 55’ x 45’ and standing 15’ high, supports a 100’-tall shaft of light Tennessee marble that stretches 32’ wide and 11’ deep. 

Two features punctuate this imposing façade: at the base along the tower’s west side, a 10’ bronze statue of Senator Taft sculpted by Wheeler Williams of New York (which took two and a half years to complete); and an open carillon of bells at the crown. Architect Douglas William Orr of New Haven, Conn., designed this monolithic structure. 

“A magnificent carillon”

Residing within the belfry are 27 bronze bells, molded by the Paccard Bell Foundry of Annecy-le-Vieux, France. The largest weighs almost 7 tons and is tuned to the key of “G,” while the smallest bell weighs a mere 126 pounds. A technician from Paccard installed and calibrated the bells within the tower. The complete matched set continues to produce rich, resonant tones and is recognized as among the finest in the world. 

Image: Jim Saenger, the Capitol’s Carillonneur, with the Robert A. Taft Memorial and Carillon bells. Credit: Architect of the Capitol.

While the bells may be played manually by a skilled carillonneur appointed by the Architect of the Capitol, they are programmed to strike the hour automatically. The carillon rings 422 times in the 12 hours between 8:00am and 8:00pm: 16 times on the hour – ringing on the hour, at 15 minutes, at 30 minutes, and at 45 minutes – before tolling the actual time. The large central bell strikes the hour, while the smaller bells chime the quarter hours and play familiar tunes. By resolution of Congress, the carillonneur plays "The Star-Spangled Banner" at 2:00pm every Independence Day.

Words from a statesman

At the end of the dedication ceremony, as the bells rang out in requiem overhead and as Eisenhower, Hoover, and Nixon retreated from view, those in attendance reflected on the words that remain etched on the memorial’s walls. Above the bronze statue of Taft, it reads:

"This memorial to Robert A. Taft, presented by the people to the Congress of the United States, stands as a tribute to the honesty, indomitable courage, and high principles of free government symbolized by his life."

The north and south walls of the memorial are etched with words from the late senator himself:

North (facing Union Station): "If we wish to make democracy permanent in this country, let us abide by the fundamental principles laid down in the Constitution. Let us see that the state is the servant of its people, and that the people are not the servants of the state."

South (facing the U.S. Capitol): “Liberty has been the key to our progress in the past and is the key to our progress in the future. If we can preserve liberty in all its essentials, there is no limit to the future of the American people.”

Keep exploring!

The Taft family has inspired two Capitol Hill landmarks. William Howard Taft (Robert A. Taft’s father and the only person to serve as both President of the United States and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) successfully campaigned for construction of the Supreme Court Building – two blocks from the site of his son’s future memorial.

A door at the back of the Robert A. Taft Memorial and Carillon leads to the bells above and is emblazoned with an American eagle, surrounded by a halo of 17 stars. Ohio, birthplace of Robert A. Taft, was the 17th state in the Union.