Restoration of the ‘sound of the University of Illinois’ moves forward

By Joel Steinfeldt

The restoration work on the historic Altgeld Chimes at Illinois is progressing rapidly, said Matthew Tomaszewski, the associate provost for capital planning. He’s leading a diverse team of Facilities and Services engineers, carpenters, movers, upholsterers, painters, and others who are bringing the beloved chimes back to life.

“The chimes are the sound of the campus. One of the things that everybody remembers, whether it’s guests, or students, faculty or staff, everyone knows the Quad, the Alma Mater, and then of course, the sound, the sound of the chimes in the background – it’s the feel of the campus,” he said. “I think that creates the full experience, all of your senses, while you’re here. It’s the sound of the University of Illinois.”

While the chimes are still being played through automation on the quarter hour, the live, weekday afternoon concerts had to be suspended to allow the restoration work to be done. The playing chamber has been leveled, eliminating tripping hazards, and orange and blue carpeting tiles have been installed. The walls have been repainted, damaged furniture replaced, and refurbishing of the playing and practice stands for the chimes is 90 percent finished, Tomaszewski said.

“It’s pretty amazing from what it was to what it is right now, but there’s a long way to go yet,” he said.

That’s because the restoration work on the bells, clappers, pulleys, cables, supporting frame, and masonry is yet to be done. The university expects to sign an agreement with a company that specializes in clock and bell repairs soon. After that, it is expected that repairs will take six months, unless additional damage is found, he said.

Tomaszewski hopes current and future chimes players will be delighted with the detailed restoration work on the playing and practices stands, which have been stripped and re-stained. Handles that play sharps have been painted black and all of the note identifiers have been applied and polished. New pieces were fabricated, crumbling nuts and bolts replaced, and new felt and pads have been installed. “All the chimes players care so much about the instrument itself; they want to make sure it’s in good hands, and of course it was done beautifully,” he said.

New cables and special cone-shaped guides will help keep the cables from freezing, Tomaszewski said. “It would be very nice if we didn’t have to worry about that, because basically that shuts down the chimes. In years past, players would open the hatch door and shake the cables (to free them), but we don’t want people going above the playing room.”

“The furniture shop and mill shop team, they have done an outstanding job with the repairs,” he said. “Basically, when the players played, the whole rack would shake from side to side, and it was becoming unstable.” Because of the years of wear and tear, and because of water infiltrating the room at times, many pieces were too damaged to re-use and have been replaced, he said.

“The chimes are such an important part of people’s experience of our campus. It’s sad that it’s closed right now, but wonderful that we have the opportunity to actually take care of something that’s such an iconic piece of campus, and when we re-open, during the Sesquicentennial celebration, to have all of this attention on it, I think it will be wonderful to have the chimes playing again,” Tomaszewski said.

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