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‘Commission from the grave’ revives El Campanil

Mills College Weekly

The plot reads like a movie script-a tower, a ticking clock, ten
brave heroines in distress and those who come to their aid-and this
story has many heroes-donors, artisans, trustees. The story of the
Mills clock tower and its resident bells is a fascinating one.

El Campanil’s bells and clock were silenced last October after
an inspection revealed frayed, threadbare cables and missing spokes
in the clock works.

“It was like a commission from the grave,” said Lloyd Larish,
master clockmaker, of the referral that brought him to the Mills
campus. The grandson of the original clockmaker, Seth Thomas, had
visited Mills several years ago, evaluated the condition of the
clock and predicted the need for restoration. He named Larish as
one of only two artisans in the nation qualified to make the

Although Thomas had passed away, trustees still had his
recommendations. In the fall of 2003, they contacted Larish, who
renovated the clock in his Minnesota shop. In January, upon
completion of the repairs, he made a hair-raising, four-day drive,
much of it through blizzards, to return the clock to Oakland for
re-installation. The clock is a #16 Seth Thomas, short pendulum,
Westminster Clock, which chimes on the quarter hour. Arms on the
bells connect them to the clock mechanism.

Originally cast in Ohio for the Columbian International
Exposition of 1893, the bells traveled to San Francisco for a
Midwinter Exposition later that year. In 1902, they were purchased
and given to Mills by David Hewes of San Francisco. According to
the book, Fourscore and Ten Years: A History of Mills College by
Rosalind A. Keep, then President Susan Mills informed Hewes that
the school lacked the funds to erect a suitable tower and suggested
he bestow them elsewhere, but, Mills is reported to have said,
“…the bells arrived and found a quiet resting place near Lisser
Hall, and there, amidst the stir and merry life of our young
people, they alone were silent. Our silent ten, we called

During graduation week, 1903, Mills was walking with two friends
on campus. When they passed the bells in their long, black casement
of metal, she murmured, “Our silent ten.” Upon learning the story,
the friends-trustees, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Marion Smith of Oakland
were determined to give the college a suitable tower to house the
chimes, and their combined weight of five tons. Julia Morgan, the
celebrated California architect, was commissioned to draw plans for
the Spanish-type tower, noted in Keep’s book to be the first bell
tower erected on a college campus in the U.S. and the first example
of modern reinforced concrete on the Pacific Coast.

Following the custom of the day, the bells were given names of
the graces of the spirit. If one were to climb the 72 steps to the
clock tower, the names can still be found inscribed in gold letters
above their niches: “Love” (the largest), weighing 2500 lbs.,
“Faith,” “Hope,” “Peace,” “Joy,” “Gentleness,” “Self-control,”
“Long-suffering,” “Charity,” and “Meekness” (the smallest), 250

Mills Vice-President Elizabeth Burwell credited Paul Richards,
head of campus facilities, Mike McBride, chief engineer, and Jess
Texeira, with major assistance in the renovation, including
repainting the clock face.

“We must pay special tribute to James Fowler, trustee and chair
of Campus Planning,” said Burwell. “His generosity made the
restoration possible.”

“The bell tower seemed a perfect project, because I am a
longtime fan of Julia Morgan,” said Fowler. “This was one of her
most significant early projects, calling on her skills as architect
and engineer. The tower survived both the 1906 earthquake and Loma
Prieta-a testament to her skills.”

Last Friday at a rededication ceremony, U.C. graduate student,
Karen McNeill, an expert on Julia Morgan, gave a brief overview of
Morgan’s career and commission to build the bell tower.

An enthusiastic, champagne sipping crowd gathered Friday to hear
the bells of El Campanil once more mark the noon hour. President
Holmgren spoke for many in the Mills community as she said that the
bells mark “our past, present and auspicious future.” Holmgren said
that she was honored to dedicate the bells, echoing the footsteps
of President Susan Mills.

“In loyal remembrance of those who by tongue or pen, by generous
gift or noble deed have aided woman to her upward way, these bells
chime on.” With these words, Susan Mills dedicated the bells in
1904. These words seem equally fitting 100 years later, in the year