El Dorado church restoring old bell tower
First Presbyterian Church of El Dorado has begun a long-awaited preservation of the historic carillon (a type of musical instrument consisting of many different bells or chimes) housed in its bell tower, with hopes to finish in time for Easter (April 21).
“People all over town are looking forward to it,” said the Rev. David Stipp-Bethune with a smile.
The chimes, a 16-note carillon manufactured by J.C. Deagan, Inc., are one of only 440 built by the company. One other set is at First United Methodist Church of Fort Smith.
W.L. Cook, chairman of the church’s bell committee, said the preservation project started after the church was struck by lightning in 2016.
Church officials discovered that the support beam for the chimes, responsible for holding the 4-ton instrument, had begun dry rotting.
“The whole problem was what would happen if the beam gave way, having 8,000 pounds of weight on it,” Cook said.
Cook said that the only thing separating the carillon at the top of the bell tower and the rest of the structure was a one-board thick floor underneath the instrument. He said if it fell, after crashing through the floor it would compress all the air in the tower, leading to catastrophe.
“In compressing the air, we’d have an implosion of the bell tower,” he said.
In an email to congregants, Cook included a mock-up by Mike Means of what the damage would look like if the bell tower imploded; the rendering showed the bell tower at half its normal height, leaning into the street, as debris crowds the front entrance of the church.
To avoid such a catastrophe, First Presbyterian suspended ringing the carillon after the lightning strike. Whether one timed their day by the bell’s quarter-hour chimes or cursed them as they rang through the night, there was a noticeable absence.
“It is a Westminster chime system and for years, for decades, whenever the quarter-hour came there was some sort of chime,” Cook said.
Last fall, the church began raising money to start the preservation. Cook said he set his goal at $250,000 and that the church has already raised more than $200,000.
“The thing that I find very fulfilling is that at one point there were 57 contributions and out of the 57 contributions, 27 were from people who are not members of the church,” Cook said.
He said he does not know yet what the final cost of the preservation will be, but the fundraising is ongoing.
Originally built in 1926, First Presbyterian was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. The church was renovated about 20 years ago, Cook said; at that time, the wooden beam sup-
porting the carillon had not yet started to dry rot.
“The bell tower was designed to reach to the heavens and give melodious sounds to God,” said the architecture firm behind First Presbyterian, R.H. Hunt and Associates.
Monday, a portion of Hill Avenue between Elm and Main streets was blocked off as workers from Milam Construction removed the carillon from the bell tower.
The carillon will be cleaned while a new support frame is fabricated. Workers say that it could take three to five months for the new frame to be built, but Cook and other church officials are holding out hope to finish sooner.
“Our dream is that we will have the chimes reinstalled in time for Easter services,” Cook said.
“God works in mysterious ways,” Stipp-Bethune said.