Work under way to revamp Whitman College's iconic clock, bell

Memorial Building is in the midst of upgrades, and the clock and bell are off to the shop for work.

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The bell is removed from the Whitman College clock tower on May 28 as part of a major restoration of the structure.

WALLA WALLA - When Whitman College student Yonas Fikak woke up one morning last week he immediately noticed that something was wrong.

"It was weird not hearing the clock, because I lived so close to Memorial (Building) part of the year," said Fikak, describing the "shock" of waking up without the perfunctory ring of Whitman's clock tower.

Installed over a century ago in Whitman's Memorial Building, the trademark clock and bell were removed on last week to undergo renovation over the summer, which college employees say is badly needed.

According to construction worker Jamey Cardwell, the renovation is only the aesthetic end of a larger project to make the iconic, but aging, tower more sturdy in case of future seismic activity. Cardwell says that crews plan to buttress the tower by reinforcing the walls and foundation of the structure with rebar and concrete, and by adding a new set of stairs.

"This is a pretty cool situation, not many guys get to work on something like this," Cardwell said Friday above the din of drills and hammers that have subsumed the site for the past week.

According to an enthusiastic Cardwell, crews removed the clock after dismantling it, and lowered the pieces down with a cherry-picker. The clock was then sent to the East Coast for restoration. The 800-pound bell was hoisted out of the tower with a crane, and then sent to the Walla Walla Foundry, where it will be refinished and made to "look nice," said Cardwell.

"Well, the clock worked, but the clock face was pretty well worn," said Whitman College Physical Plant Director Dan Park. According to Park the Whitman Life Cycles Committee made the decision to have the weathered bell and clock restored.

Whereas the original crews installed the bell by cutting 4-foot-by-4-foot openings in each floor of the tower to provide an opening for the bell and clock, Cardwell and his fellow workers plan on reinstalling the clock and bell with slightly more finesse. According to Cardwell, the bell will be hoisted back into the tower with a crane, and the clock will be brought up in pieces, and reassembled within the tower. "It's all coming together quick, putting it back together will be another story," Cardwell said jokingly.

Visited by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, the clock tower is a historic site that has become emblematic of college life at Whitman throughout the institution's history. This year the tower was the central theme of the Whitman's winning college T-shirt design for 2009-2010 school year, designed by Whitman student Simon Van Neste. The design features the clock tower as a kind of crossroads where canoes, kayaks, tennis rackets, soccer balls and duck tracks intersect.

If all goes according to plan, the landmark will be returned to its home by the end of the summer, and students, staff and neighbors of the college who have grown accustomed to the sight and sounds of the tower, will "hopefully not be able to tell the difference," Park said.

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