By Emily Gold Boutilier
- View a gallery of Stearns Steeple images by Samuel Masinter '04
- View additional photos of Stearns Steeple in Nooks and Crannies
Stearns Steeple had seen better days when Aaron Hayden first came across the gray stone building in 1989. It is arguably the strangest place on campus: a church steeple, the height of a 15-story building, that stands alone, with no church attached. “Windows were broken,” recalls Hayden, then a new supervisor in the physical plant, “and the pigeons had let themselves in.”
Hayden decided to have a look. Up a narrow spiral staircase and a rickety set of ladders, he discovered a clavier, or keyboard, and nine bells. The keys looked like wheelbarrow handles.
Intrigued, Hayden, who plays the trumpet and bassoon (among other instruments), decided to restore the mechanism that connects the keys to the bells. Then he taught himself to play. “Because there are only nine keys,” he says, “it’s very simple.” But the steeple itself, located between James Dormitory and the Mead Art Museum, was showing its age.
Stearns Steeple is the last remaining piece of the old College Church of Christ. In 1864, William F. Stearns, son of the college’s then-president, William A. Stearns, donated $30,000 to the college for the creation of “a proper church.” Construction began in 1870.
A man named George Howe donated the bells, cast in 1871 in the key of E. As their inscription states, the bells were “to be made to chime on all suitable occasions, in commemoration of the brave patriots, connected with Amherst College, who lost their lives in the war against the Great Rebellion of 1861.” Howe was the father of Sidney Walker Howe, Class of 1859, who died in the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862. In total, 16 Amherst alumni and one professor were killed or mortally wounded in battle during the Civil War; 22 other alumni died from disease or drowned while serving.
The church could seat around 600 worshippers. But by the 1940s, it had fallen on hard times. Membership had dwindled to six. Sunday services were poorly attended. Mandatory chapel now took place in Johnson Chapel. In 1949, the Amherst Board of Trustees decided, by a one-vote margin, to raze the College Church to make way for the Mead. (Hayden says that landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. picked the Mead’s location. Interestingly, Olmsted’s father and namesake had sited the church.) The trustees, however, also voted to keep the steeple—“for reasons of sentiment,” they said.
When Geoffrey Shepherd ’57 arrived at Amherst as a freshman, the stand-alone steeple looked, to him, “rather forlorn,” isolated from the crisp brick rectangles all around. “Like so many compromises in preservation,” he says now, “it had a certain sad quality.” Shepherd was the official ringer his sophomore, junior and senior years. The job, which required him to play every Sunday, came with a $100 annual salary.
Joel Goldin ’59 held the same post, having inherited it from Shepherd, his Phi Alpha Psi brother. “One fraternity member would pass it onto another—usually someone on scholarship with musical ability,” Goldin says. “You could basically play whatever you wanted,” as long as the song could be adapted for a nine-note instrument. While the scale is in the key of E, the extra, ninth note is a D natural, allowing the bells to be played in the key of A as well. On Sunday mornings, Goldin would ascend the tower and bang out a set of hymns—“Rock of Ages” was one. He’d also play “Paige’s Horse” and other college songs. For the ceremony held on the eve of his graduation, he learned to play the “Senior Song.”
When Shepherd was bell-ringer, he wrote out a book of Protestant hymns, tweaking the music to suit the instrument. For Thanksgiving, Easter and other holidays, he added special songs to the play list, and after a football game, he always played “Lord Jeffery Amherst.”
To this day, Goldin and Shepherd talk about the job with noticeable pride. They were among the last to hold the post. Eventually, the steeple fell out of use—until Hayden came along.
In 1994, Hayden oversaw major structural repairs. Workers added new mortar between the stones and replaced and lengthened a rod that strengthens the steeple top. “It’s a hollow stone tube going up,” Hayden says of the steeple, “and there’s a lot of strength in that: that’s how our bones are made.” Still, structurally bracing floors were added at various levels to make the steeple more stable. Hayden also moved the clavier down from the belfry to a lower level.
Soon after, Parker Morse ’96 answered Hayden’s call to learn to play. In the tower, Morse found old hymnals, as well as handwritten music. But most striking were the thuds he heard when he hit the keys. Outside, the bells ring long and smooth. “Inside,” Morse says, “you’re hearing thump, bong, wham.”
Hayden is a capital projects manager, but he’s known around campus for work that transcends his title. For example, he leads tours of the Cold War-era bunker that Amherst bought in 1994, and off-hours, he is an Amherst town official, recently elected to the Select Board. Today, he’s also the main bell-ringer.
“I play whenever I can,” Hayden says. Sunday mornings are out of the question (students would take unkindly to loud bells at those hours), so Hayden reserves the music for special occasions. He plays before the annual Christmas Vespers service and the faculty-and-staff gatherings in December and July. “I try to sneak out and play on Christmas Eve at midnight,” he says. “If I can get up on New Year’s, I like to play.” Also, he visits the steeple every Sept. 11. “I lost some friends,” he says, “so I play for them.”
One of his favorite melodies to play is “Atholl Highlanders,” a folk song for bagpipes. In December, Christmas carols—“there are a lot that fit in the one-octave range”—and Chanukah music are on the list. For the annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, Hayden chooses music from different eras in African-American history, always ending with “We Shall Overcome.”
While the Mead was being renovated in 1999, a set of blueprints fell out of the ceiling. They were plans for an expanded College Church. Hayden was surprised to see the blueprints dated 1946, a mere three years before the church ceased to exist. “I imagined these two committees working with competing plans,” Hayden says, “one to improve the church, one to take advantage of Mead’s bequest to build this fine arts building, both wanting to be in the same space.”
The Mead won out, but not entirely. The bells endure as a war memorial—even if no one thinks of them as such. The stairs are dusty and cobwebbed, but in the afternoon sun, the stained glass windows reflect oranges, reds and blues that are worthy of reverence. The church is history, but the steeple, if forlorn, stands taller than anything else around.
Emily Gold Boutilier is the editor of Amherst magazine.