Every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the hour, the sound of bells fills Penn’s campus. But unlike universities with prominent bell towers, Penn’s bells are nowhere to be seen.
That's because the sound comes from an automatic instrument called a carillon kept in the Sweeten Alumni House.
The carillon, which Kristina Clark, the director of operations and Association of Alumnae referred to as “the secret of the Alumni House,” has a story rooted in tragedy.
It was originally installed due to the efforts of Mike Huber, a 1953 Wharton graduate, who for years served as associate vice president of alumni relations. He donated it in 1989 in memory of his daughter Michele Huber and her fiance Bryan Giles, both 1987 graduates from Wharton and Engineering, who were killed in a car accident in 1988.
Clark recalled that Huber visited another college and noticed that the sound of bells was missing from Penn’s campus.
“They were young, they were happy, and they were in love. I know they’d appreciate this is here today,” Huber told The Daily Pennsylvanian in 2011 before his death in 2015. “It’s good to know that they’ll never be forgotten.”
When the carillon was first installed, Huber managed it through the alumni office. When he retired, he took it on as his own project, making a contribution every year to pay for its upkeep.
But although the carillon has been a fixture on Penn’s campus for several decades now, few students know that it exists.
“People are always wondering, 'Where are the bells coming from?'” Clark said. “They’re looking for a bell tower, and it’s a tiny little box.”
Speakers for the device used to sit atop several campus buildings including Sansom East and West and Irvine Auditorium, but sometime around the 1990s, the old speakers stopped functioning due to construction projects. Huber again paid to maintain the carillon, although now it only plays from the top of the Sweeten Alumni House on Locust Walk.
In 2004, a new digital carillon replaced the older one. Huber covered the cost, which Clark estimated was $12,000 to install and roughly $5,000 annually to maintain.
In addition to playing traditional bells, it plays songs randomly from its portfolio of around 40 songs, from artists like Beethoven, The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and albums such as the Star Wars soundtrack. But that’s not all — the carillon can play any song programmed into it. When Penn hosted the Ivy Plus conference, the carillon played the songs of the visiting schools. For homecoming weekend it plays traditional Penn songs, and on occasion it plays for weddings on campus.
When Huber died last year, in lieu of flowers, people were asked to make donations to the University to care for the carillon. Thanks to gifts from friends and family, as well as groups like the Mask and Wig Club and Friars Senior Society, there is now enough money in the fund to maintain it for many years to come.
“In his memory, it will forever play now,” Clark said.
Although few students know the story of the carillon, Clark said Huber would have wanted it that way.
“He liked the fact that the students heard it and didn’t even necessarily know where it came from, that it was just part of their college life.”
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