Daddy’s Bells

Baker Park Carillon Tower Celebrates 80 Years as a Musical Landmark

By Karen Gardner | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 11.01.21 – Feature, History

Reaching 70 feet into the sky, the Joseph D. Baker Carillon is the iconic centerpiece of Frederick’s Baker Park. But to Doris Smith of Middletown, the edifice has always been known as “Daddy’s Bells.”

That’s because her father, Leon Blank, was part of the masonry crew that built the stone façade that houses the carillon. Eighty years ago this month, stonemason Wilfred G. Blank, his brother Harvey Blank Sr., and their sons, including Leon, finished laying the stones that today enclose the rare, 49-bell instrument. The carillon is one of two in Maryland and 180 in North America.

Doris Smith was only 3 when Leon and the other employees of Blank Brothers Masonry and Stone Contractors built the bell tower in the second half of 1941. “They were given 100 days to build it, and they completed it in 90 days,” Smith proudly says. The tower was dedicated on Nov. 30, 1941, exactly a week before Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Although she doesn’t remember the construction, Smith has family photos that document the process. She also recalled her father, grandfather and uncles building other stone structures around Frederick with surgical detail. “They would lay a stone and stand back, and if it didn’t suit, they would take it out and replace it,” Smith recalls.

The bell tower was part of an expanding Frederick. In 1926, city officials began the process of buying land between Bentz Street and West College Terrace for a park. Local banker Joseph Dill Baker donated $13,825 to the city to purchase the land. Baker Park opened in 1927. Baker died in 1938; in his memory, friends raised money to build a tower to house a carillon.

Architect John B. Hamme of York, Pa., designed the tower. Floyd Culler served as the lead builder and Blank Brothers Masonry was tasked with building the stone façade. As its name implied, Blank Brothers was mostly a family affair, although William Bowie served as the laborer tender, mixing the mortar that would hold the stones together. Bowie, as an African American, wasn’t allowed in the park except to work there. Baker Park would remain segregated for another two decades.

The tower officially housed a carillon in 1966 when nine more bells were added to the original 14-bell chime. In 1995, the 23 bells were refurbished and 26 new bells added, giving the carillon a total of 49 bells with a chime range of four octaves, making the carillon a delight not only for the eyes, but also for the ears.

Stone by Stone

The tower sits on a foundation that extends 12 feet underground to solid rock. The stones are made primarily from granite, mixed with sandstone and flecks of mica and iron. Quarried in Baltimore County, the rectangular stones range from about 1 to 4 inches high and 1 to 2 feet across, with some stones extending 3 feet across.

“They also worked on the [Calvary United] Methodist Church,” Smith says. “My grandfather was 52 when they built the carillon and Dad was 28.” 

Family photos show the tower surrounded by wooden scaffolding. The process began with piles of stone brought to the park. “They brought the stones here and cut them on site using a hammer and chisel,” Smith says. 

It was a messy process. “Daddy always came home from work covered in dust,” Smith says. In each photo, Wilfred Blank is wearing a hat and buttoned shirt. He always kept a tie in his lunchbox in case he needed it, Smith recalls. “I don’t think my grandfather ever took off his shirt,” she says. “He was a gentleman.”

Her dad didn’t hesitate to, however. Some of the family photos show Leon Blank in a sleeveless undershirt, working in what was likely late summer or early fall of 1941. “My dad was good at schematics,” Smith says. “He could look at plans and calculate the number of bricks or stones needed.” Leon passed away in 1978, but some Blank descendants carry on the tradition. 

The work was exacting. “They would measure [the stones], draw a line with a pencil, put the chisel on it and hit it with a hammer and it would break along the line,” she says. “They had a board and they put mortar on it,” she says. Mortar was spread across the stone and the stone tender put the stone in place.

“Each builder took a corner, and that way it would look consistent from all angles,” Smith says. Byron L. Hawkins, president of Artistic Masonry Contractors in Frederick, says the process worked well. Hawkins should know. When refurbishing the Baker Park Band Shell in 2008, he matched it to the masonry work of the carillon tower.

Hawkins got the bandshell stones from Butler Quarry in Baltimore County, a 200-year-old operation that he thinks is likely the source of the tower’s stones. “That stone comes out of the quarry with veins of color, and you want a nice mix of those colors in the stones,” he says. “The colors tell you what’s in the stone.” The tan stones in the carillon and the bandshell were formed from bits of sandstone in the granite, while the shiny, metallic speckles are mica. Red streaks indicate clay in the soil surrounding the stone.

Even the granite itself ranges in color from dark to light gray. The long horizontal veins help the stonemason decide where to cut the stone. “You see this line,” Hawkins says, pointing to a horizontal vein in one of the tower’s stones. “The stone will split on this seam. This is how you get a smooth cut.” Today, stonemasons still cut stones the way they did in 1941, using a hammer and chisel. 

Butler Quarry stone is known for stones that come out of the quarry with square edges, making the stone easier to cut. A challenge is to mix the mortar just right. “The key is good, consistent mortar,” Hawkins says. “This is a type S mortar, which means degrees of how much Portland cement is in the mortar.” The mortar in the tower has a consistent ratio of Portland cement to sand and lime. That’s good for longevity. “It should last another hundred years,” he says.

Another challenge is to smooth the mortar so it’s level, he says. “A stonemason’s goal is always to get the mortar level,” Hawkins says. The stones are placed in rows on horizontal bed joints of mortar. The mortar is leveled using a trowel. Each stone in the row is separated by vertical head joints of mortar. It’s crucial to lay the stones in alternating patterns, like bricks, in order to prevent cracks in the mortar. 

Stonemasons work best in dry conditions, working in the shade for consistent results. “It really is satisfying, and it’s good for the soul,” Hawkins says. “This stuff came out of God’s green earth.”

Jewel of Baker Park

The carillon tower rises up tall over the ribbon of green expanse that surrounds it. Known as the jewel in the crown of Baker Park, the tower is built on slightly higher ground than the surrounding parkland. 

The top rows of stones of the bell tower curve outward just slightly to prevent rainwater from sliding down the stone structure. Inside is the belfry, in the upper reaches of the tower, where the 49 bells are housed. These bells are made of bronze with a bit of tin and copper. The 14 original bells were cast at Meneely Foundry in New York and may have been the last set of bells cast there.

The tower didn’t house a true carillon instrument until 1966, when nine additional bells were added. Carillons must consist of at least 23 bells, or an octave and a half. The nine bells came from the Royal Eijsbouts Foundry in the Netherlands. Money left over from a city election paid most of the $11,000 tab to buy and install the bells. 

In 1995, 26 new bells from the Petit & Fritsen Bell Foundry of the Netherlands were added as part of a $300,000 effort to refurbish the carillon, which sustained damage in the 1976 city flood. Improvements also included repairs to the keyboard and to the mechanics connecting the keyboard to the clappers inside each bell. 

The nonprofit Friends of Baker Park led the effort to raise the money needed to buy and install the new bells, new clappers, and new mechanics connecting the keyboard to the clappers. The funds also paid for a new 50-step spiral staircase to replace the old wooden steps that carillonneurs used to climb for decades to reach the instrument.

The stone tower attracts all kinds of history lovers, tourists and locals. Ben Givens of Frederick is often listening to the Sunday performances. “I love music of many kinds,” he says while sitting in a lawn chair under the shade of a park tree. “I just love the sound of the carillon. When there’s a breeze blowing and you get some Doppler wind shift, that gives the music a delightful sound.”

Carillonneur John Widmann usually plays the carillon on Sundays, a post he started in 1992. He replaced Galen Brooks, who replaced the original carillonneur, H. David Hagan. Widmann is on a yearlong sabbatical, however. After retiring from teaching music at Tuscarora Elementary School in June, he left for a year of study at Belgium’s Royal Carillon School, the oldest and largest carillon school in the world.

“The carillon has been an excellent pandemic instrument,” Widmann writes in an email. “People listen outside and can easily keep social distance as the instrument can be heard well for blocks. The carillon offered great comfort to citizens during the worst of the pandemic, as I never stopped the Sunday recitals, and even played a series of recitals in participation with other citizens who played on porches and in front yards early on to show appreciation for health care and other essential workers.”

Sunday Sounds

Hunter Chase and Allison Shafer are playing the carillon on Sundays in Widmann’s absence. Chase began playing the carillon in college at the University of Chicago. The college’s carillon fascinated him, and he joined a group of students who learned about and played the carillon. “One challenge is, although it is similar in some ways to other musical instruments, there are no really similar instruments,” he says. “The other challenge is you don’t want to practice endlessly in a tower.”

On a recent Sunday in the carillon chamber high above Baker Park, Chase spreads sheet music across the oak music desk. As he plays, he deftly moves his fisted hands rapidly across the wooden batons. If he needs to tap several keys at once, he spreads his fingers wide to tap the batons like piano keys. To sound the deepest, heaviest bells, he taps foot pedals. The bells weigh from 22 to 3,500 pounds. A wire attaches each bell to a baton or a foot pedal. As each note is played, clappers strike the bells. Unlike traditional British bells, carillon and chiming bells don’t move.

Chase practices on a keyboard, but it’s not the same as being in the tower. “We often do it by feel,” he says. “You know how it feels when playing loudly or softly,” he says. The best place to listen to a carillon is not at the base, he says, but about 200 feet away.

Drummers and organists probably adapt easiest to playing a carillon. “When I play a note, I’m never holding it down,” Chase says. “I sort of want to let the clapper come off it.” Chase has been playing the carillon for 11 years. Like most carillonneurs, he seeks out the opportunity to play a carillon whenever possible, something all carillonneurs must do, because there are so few of them. “No one’s mom just signs you up for carillon lessons,” he says. “You really have to want to do it.”

Most U.S. carillon structures are less than 100 years old. Carillons originated in the low countries of Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands. There are 450 carillons outside of North America. “Every carillon is unique,” Chase says. He plays a variety of tunes, including classical, popular, hymns and folk songs. “You can do a lot with it,” he says.

All while tucked away in the tower Doris Smith’s daddy helped build.

“One of the things about playing the carillon,” Chase says, “is we don’t see our audience.”