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Background: Harvard has a set of 18 Russian bells purchased from the Soviet government in 1930, one of only five complete, intact sets of pre-revolutionary Russian bells left in the world. They came from Moscow's oldest monastery, which is now also the Patriarch's residence. The monastery has been trying to get the bells back for the past 20 years, but they have become part of Harvard's culture too, and the university is not just hoping to get rid of them. Also, the towers would have to be dismantled in order to remove them. Nonetheless, the dialogue has been amicable, and Harvard is willing to entertain the idea of their return.


December 05, 2003

Accounting for the Bells’ Toll

Contributing Writer

Seventy-three years after a Russian monastery’s bells were shipped across the Atlantic and hoisted into the Lowell bell tower, a delegation of monks have arrived at Harvard to urge the University to return the sacred instruments.

Moscow’s Danilov Monastery lost its original bells when the Soviet Union sold them to American businessman Charles Crane, who in turn donated them to Harvard in 1929.

This weekend, a group from Danilov— the center of the Russian Orthodox Church— will meet with University Vice President Alan J. Stone to try to persuade Harvard to give them back.

University President Lawrence H. Summers said in September that the cost of returning the bells could be prohibitive, but that he would be willing to discuss the possibility with the monks.

And a former Lowell master estimated last year that returning the bells could cost tens of millions of dollars.

But this week, representatives of two major bell suppliers pegged the cost at closer to $1 million.

And while a prominent Russian bell-ringer told the St. Petersburg Times last year that the University should foot the bill for returning the bells, church leaders have been more moderate and have talked about raising their own funds to finance the bells’ shipment.

“It is Harvard’s right to say [what] will be done because they legally received the bells,” Father Innokentiy Okhovoy, the monastery’s administrator, said this summer.

Stone explained that Summers could not make the meeting because he will be out of town this weekend, and added that the decision will probably be long in the making.

“We hope to make some progress,” Stone said. “It’s probably not reasonable to expect conclusions.“

Money Matters

Former Lowell Master William H. Bossert ’59 estimated last year that removing the bells could cost tens of millions of dollars and require closing the House for a semester.

Other administrators have mentioned potentially exorbitant cost as a reason the University might not return the bells.

But people who make and move bells for a living said this week that the Lowell bells can be sent back to Moscow with much less trouble than Bossert predicted.

For the Verdin Company in Ohio— which recently made a 33-ton bell and claims to be the world’s largest bell supplier— Lowell’s 13-ton ” Mother Earth” is practically a baby.

“I’m pretty sure we could have that down in a day,” company President James R. Verdin said.

Verdin estimated a cost of $100,000 to reinforce the belfry and then take out the bells.

Because the largest three bells— Mother Earth, along with a 6.5-ton and a 2.5-ton bell— won’t fit through the openings on the side of the tower, Verdin said, one of the columns around the bells would have to be removed.

“The issue is the cost of tearing that beautiful tower apart,” Verdin explained.

First, workers would build a steel structure around the tower to support it, Verdin said.

Then, the entrance to Lowell would be blocked for at most a few days while the bells are removed from the tower and lowered to the street.

Royal Eijsbouts in the Netherlands— which also claims to be the world’s largest bell foundry— is currently working with the University of Chicago to repair the Rockefeller Chapel’s 72-bell carillon.

The University of Chicago’s senior project manager, Kenneth D. Park, said that Chicago’s is the largest set of bells built at any one time and that lowering 53 of the bells from the 10-story tower for repairs will take about two months

Louis Bakens, who manages Eijsbouts’s international business, said that the Lowell bells will not be so difficult, because they are in a shorter tower and consist of many fewer bells.

In line with Verdin’s estimate, Bakens said that removing the bells alone— excluding the cost of structural renovations to the tower— would cost about $40,000. He also estimated the cost of shipping the bells to Moscow at about $30,000.

Even with the added cost of replacing the bells with modern instruments, the total price would likely fall below the million-dollar mark, the experts said.

Bakens said that replacing Mother Earth would cost about $100,000, and Verdin said that 17 similar bells could be manufactured for $510,000.

Arion Mancuso, the general manager of Crane and Rigging Services, LLC in Southboro, Mass., summed up the ideology of moving big things in 2003.

“There isn’t anything that can’t be moved— literally,” Mancuso said.


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