History of Beaumont Tower and the MSU Carillon

Beaumont Tower

Since it was built in 1928, the John W. Beaumont Memorial Tower has served as an icon of the Michigan State University campus. It stands at what was once the northeast corner of College Hall, the first instructional building erected on the MSU campus and also the first building in the United States devoted entirely to the teaching of scientific agriculture. Around the turn of the twentieth century, plans were made to renovate College Hall and preserve it as a student union. Workers soon discovered serious structural problems in the building and renovation was immediately halted. In 1918, two walls of College Hall collapsed. The building was in ruins.

One former student was determined that College Hall would not vanish from campus memory. John W. Beaumont, who had graduated in 1882, conceived the idea of a monument. He wanted more than a mere plaque or stone marker; he wanted something that would stand as a fitting tribute to College Hall.

Beaumont Tower was designed to be a monument to teaching. Built in the collegiate gothic style, the tower not only contained the spiritual elements embodied in the chapel-like base and cathedral-like crown but the crenellations and lancet windows of a fortress. In a more literal sense, however, Beaumont Tower really was meant to function as a defensive structure. With the collapse of College Hall in 1918 and the burning of two adjacent dormitories, Campus Circle—now devoid of buildings—became vulnerable to new development. An artillery garage was built on the foundations of College Hall and plans were made to cover Campus Circle with new buildings.

Michigan State College alumni, wanting to preserve the area as a “sacred space,” initiated a  “Save the Circle” campaign, and John W. Beaumont presented his plan to replace the artillery garage with a memorial tower. This tower, occupying the highest end of the circle, would dominate the skyline of the north campus and discourage future building in the oldest and most historical sections of the college.

The Carillon

A carillon is a musical instrument consisting of at least two octaves of carillon bells arranged in chromatic series and played from a keyboard (clavier) that permits control of expression through variation of touch. 

The MSU carillon contains 49 bells and is capable of playing the full range of literature composed for the instrument. The first ten bells were installed in the new Beaumont Tower in 1928. Thirteen additional bells were installed in 1935. The smallest bell weighs about 15 pounds; the largest weighs 2.5 tons. The interior of the tower was completely renovated in 1996 and the carillon, clock, and Westminster chimes were restored. The lower 27 bells were retained and the upper bells were replaced by new bells specially designed to match the lower ones in respect to timbre and pitch.

The carillon clavier is located on the fourth floor of the tower, behind the clocks and near the bells. To play the bells, the carillonneur’s loosely closed fists strike the wooden keys and the carillonneur’s feet depress the foot pedals. When the keys and pedals are depressed, wires move the clappers to hit the bells and the bells sound. The more force used in moving the clappers, the louder the bells sound. There is only mechanical assistance involved in playing music on the instrument.

One never hears recorded music from the tower. Twenty-seven bells have a hammer on the outside. These bells, activated by a computer, strike the Westminster Quarters every 15 minutes during the day and play MSU Shadows daily. A carillon practice clavier is located on the ground floor of the tower. 

The carillon itself was developed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in the area of Europe that is now Holland, Belgium, and northern France. There are about 185 carillons in North America, including 13 in Michigan.

Volunteer assistant carillonneurs play the MSU carillon at noon on Wednesdays and Thursdays during the summer and for special tours and events.