•Construction Date: 1888
At the base of the tower, Uris Library is a spacious and well-furnished study spot, and a great place for students to work on research projects and papers. At the base of the tower, Uris Library is a spacious and well-furnished study spot, and a great place for students to work on research projects and papers.
Throughout the day, chimes in the McGraw Clock Tower at the top of the slope mark the passing hours. Daily concerts by student chimesmasters feature Broadway hits, Beatles favorites, and Cornell’s alma mater. The famed Cornell Chimes is one of the oldest musical traditions on campus.
The McGraw Clocktower, named in honor of John McGraw, stands as the most recognizable landmark on the Cornell campus. The original nine bells, a gift from Ithacan Jennie McGraw, were rung on a wooden stand and played for the 1st time at the University’s opening ceremonies in 1868. After several years in McGraw Hall, the chimes moved to the 173-foot McGraw Tower in 1891. The tower currently contains twenty-one bells.
In 1997, the tower garnered national media attention when late-night pranksters adorned the tower’s spire with what turned out to be a hollowed-out pumpkin.
Faces of the Seth Thomas Clock glow red for Valentine’s Day, green for Dragon Day, and orange for Halloween.
Today, student Chimesmasters climb the tower’s 161 steps to play three concerts every weekday during the academic year. Music selections are drawn from a diverse repertoire, ranging from Beethoven to the Beatles. Each concert includes a standard Cornell song: “Changes” in the morning (also known as the Jennie McGraw Rag), the Alma Mater in the afternoon, and “Evening Song” at day’s end.
The McGraw Tower is the Cornell landmark. fresh students lost downtown or across campus use it to orient themselves and aim for familiar ground. Undergrads studying in the libraries nearby mark the hours with the chiming of its 1875 Seth Thomas clock, currently computer-operated. And Albert W. Smith, class of 1878, who wrote the lyrics to “The Hill,” included the clock tower and its chimes in a nostalgic tune still sung on campus today.
Designed by William Henry Miller in 1891, the tower originally provided storage for overflow library books. currently its seven rooms include practice space and a library of musical arrangements, and a museum.
Like violins and pianos, the quality of sound produced by a bell reflects its maker. Seventeen of Cornell’s bells came from the Meneely Foundry in Watervliet, N.Y., including the nine given by Jennie McGraw, which marked the university’s inauguration. A pair donated in the 20th century came from Padccard Foundry in France. In 1998, all of the bells were sent to Meeks, Watson & Company in Ohio, for tuning.
While the bells were in Ohio, a renovation of the clock tower included construction of a fresh practice room and installation of a specially designed stand that balances the sound of the bells.
Music may be an art, but for Cornell’s chimesmasters, it’s also a full-body workout, including a 161-stair climb to the top of McGraw Tower, and muscle-burning effort to depress the hand and foot levers that ring the bells.
Each spring several dozen students compete in a ten-week program to become chimesmasters. During this time, they learn the “Cornell Changes,” a 549-note rag that has been played at each morning concert since 1869. Ultimately, just a handful are selected to become one of the ten students who play three daily concerts plus special events, such as Halloween and Valentine’s concerts and weddings.
The more than 2,000 arrangements in their repertoire include Schubert and Scott Joplin, as well as “The Mickey Mouse March” and original compositions by former chimesmasters.
The Cornell Chimes
The Cornell Chimes are the university’s oldest musical tradition, and one of the most frequently played set of bells on any American college campus. Housed in historic McGraw Tower, the 21-bells are played primarily by student chimesmasters.
All concerts are open to the public—you simply have to climb the tower’s 161 steps. The door to the tower opens five to ten minutes before a scheduled concert and closes before concert’s end. Your stair-climbing efforts will be rewarded with a spectacular view of Cornell and the surrounding community, and a musical performance like you’ve never seen before.
The Cornell Chimesmasters perform a regular program of three concerts daily while classes are in session and a modified schedule during exams and breaks. Please check the concert schedule for complete concert and special event information.
About the Chimes and Tower
The Cornell Chimes
The Cornell Chimes has been the heartbeat of campus life for more than a century, marking the hours and chiming concerts. The original set of nine bells 1st rang out at the university’s opening ceremonies October 7, 1868. Over time the chime has been recast and expanded to 21 bells; it continues to ring daily concerts, making it one of the largest and most frequently played chimes in the world.
Playing the Chimes
The bells are played by “chimesmasters.” An average of ten chimesmasters play three concerts daily during the school year and a reduced schedule during the summer and semester breaks, in addition to a variety of specialty concerts. Each spring a rigorous ten-week competition is held for anyone interested in becoming a chimesmaster. Previous chime experience is not a requirement to playing this unique instrument, only the ability to read music and the energy to climb 161 steps. There is no electronic assistance to the playing mechanism — all the work is done by the player. In the 1940s a chimesmaster received physical education credit for her efforts!
Virtually every kind of music is played on the bells, from Baroque to Beatles, Schubert to Scott Joplin, “Pomp and Circumstance” to the “Mickey Mouse March,” selected from a collection of more than 2500 pieces specially arranged for the Cornell Chimes by current and former chimesmasters. There are even duets. Because of the direct link between the playing stand and the clapper of the bell, it is possible to vary the dynamics of the music.
The chimes remain a bastion of tradition on campus. The “Cornell Changes” (known affectionately as the “Jennie McGraw Rag” in honor of the donor of the original bells) has heralded every morning concert since 1869. Its 549 notes provide a challenge to chimesmasters, whose goal it is to play it as fast as possible. It must be memorized by aspiring chimesmasters. Also played daily are the “Alma Mater” at the midday concert, and the “Cornell Evening Song” at the end of the evening concert.
The bells were originally played on a ground level playing stand on the site of the current clock tower, before moving to McGraw Hall in 1873. In 1891, upon its completion, they were moved to their permanent home atop library tower (later renamed McGraw Tower). Local architect William Henry Miller designed the 173-foot tower and adjacent Uris library.
The seven rooms in the tower were originally used to store the library’s stacks (presumably the lesser-used works!). They currently house the chimes office, museum, practice room, and the 1875 Seth Thomas clock with a 14-foot pendulum. Visitors can still see the clockworks and pendulum, but a computer currently operates the clock. In 1999 as part of the restoration of the bells and tower, a global positioning system was linked to the clockworks keeping all four clockfaces correct, up to the 2nd!
The tower, a symbol of the university, as it stands above Cornell and the community is known to take on different appearances during the school year. Every Halloween the glowing clock faces resemble four jolly jack-o-lanterns. In March the clock faces take on a greenish hue in anticipation of Dragon Day when the 1st-year Architecture students debut their giant dragon to be thwarted by the rival Engineers.
Visitors are welcome and encouraged to attend our chimes concerts to fully appreciate these icons. Something essential would be missing from the campus without that cheery tintinnabulation that serenades Cornellians and visitors daily. In the words of Albert W. Smith 1878:
I wake at night and think I hear
And mem’ry brings in visions clear
Beneath green elms with branches bowed
In springtime suns,
Or touching elbows in a crowd
Of eager ones;
Again I’m hurrying past the towers
Or with the teams,
Or spending precious idling hours
In golden dreams
— from “The Hill”
You can read more about the history and lore of the Cornell Chimes and McGraw Tower in The Cornell Chimes, by Ed McKeown, available at the Cornell Store. Recordings of the Chimes is also available.
Each spring semester, the Cornell Chimesmasters hold an open competition to find fresh chimesmasters for the upcoming years. This ten-week event is open to all members of the Cornell community. No previous experience in chimes-ringing is needed, but you should be able to read music and climb 161 steps.
Although this is called a competition, compets are not really competing against each other. Rather we look for a certain level of excellence as you progress through the ten week competition. There is no quota. Some years we accept one fresh chimesmaster, some years three or four; we average about two fresh players each year.
Cornell Chimes Merchandise
All Cornell Chimes merchandise is available exclusively at the Cornell Store. Call 1-800-624-4080 or follow these links to order online: Music from the Tower compact disk is $15. The Cornell Chimes book is $24.95.
The Cornell Chimes: Music from the Tower
Music from the Tower, the newest CD in the Cornell Chimes music collection, is a 23-piece recording, grouped into 5 categories: Cornell Songs, Original Compositions, World, Classical, and Popular Music, to highlight the diverse array of music that rings daily from McGraw Tower. The individual pieces were selected to showcase the chimesmasters ever-expanding musical talents.
The Cornell Chimes, by Ed McKeown
This comprehensive history of the Cornell Chimes and McGraw Tower—published on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the tower—contains more than 50 archival photos and illustrations, anecdotes and memoirs. Beginning with James O’Neill, class of 1871, who was moved by the inaugural-day concert to petition President Andrew D. White for permission to play the bells, chimesmasters from throughout Cornell’s history tell the story of the changing campus and the changing times.
The Cornell Chimes
As anyone who has studied in Uris Library can tell you, Cornell’s chimes are housed in McGraw Tower, which is attached to the library. Every fifteen minutes, bells mark the passing of time, and two or three times a day, the campus is treated to a bell concert that features such time-honored and memorable tunes as (of course) the Alma Mater, the Evening Song, the Jennie McGraw Rag, “If I Only Had a Brain,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and “Here Comes the Sun.”
Trek up the tower’s 161 steps during one of those concerts and you can watch chimesmasters in action, working solo or in teams with both hands and at least one foot working levers and pedals to play the 21 bells that comprise the renowned Cornell chimes. The original nine bells rang for the university’s opening ceremonies in 1868. Hung from a temporary wooden framework, and given by Jennie McGraw (later Jennie McGraw Fiske), the bells have been an important part of campus life ever since. McGraw Hall, one of Cornell’s 1st buildings, included a bell tower so that those nine bells could have a permanent home. When the library opened in 1891, the bells were installed in an even larger tower built for no other reason than to house them. As a distinctive Cornell landmark, McGraw Tower is frequently used to represent the university. Its iconic presence on campus has been felt, heard and seen by generations of Cornell students, and remembered by alumni around the world.
The Cornell Chimes is a student-run organization, and the chimesmasters themselves are student and alumni musicians who bring music to the campus every day. Two Cornell chimesmasters, SiYi Wang and Scott Silverstein, both class of 2008, took time out to discuss what it has been like to participate in one of Cornell”s most cherished, most enduring traditions. Listen to the interview and find out why chimesmasters will “always have the tower.”
Remembering Jennie McGraw Fiske
On October 7, 1868, at the inauguration ceremonies for Cornell University, Francis Finch, friend and legal advisor to Ezra Cornell and later, Dean of the Cornell Law School, presented the University with a very special gift on behalf of a young benefactor. Miss Jennie McGraw had given Cornell a chime of nine bells. They were played for the 1st time that afternoon from a wooden scaffold set on the site currently occupied by Uris Library.
In his address Mr. Finch paid tribute to Jennie McGraw’s generosity:
“These bells are currently yours [Cornell]—given cheerfully, given gladly, given hopefully; given with the best wishes of a kind heart to all to whom their chime shall ring….Let the memory of their giver make them sacred; let them ring always harmonies and never discords; let them infuse into the college life, and interweave among the sober threads of practical study and toil some love of art and lines of grace and beauty; let them teach the excellence of order and system… I give these bells, [on] behalf of her whose name I trust their melody will always commemorate….”
According to Cornell historian Morris Bishop, the chime was “the 1st to peal over an American campus.” A thankful Andrew D. White, Cornell’s 1st president, would request that the 1st song played each day be, “The Cornell Changes.” Adapted from a popular carillon tune that White had heard in London, it was soon rechristened, “The Jennie McGraw Rag” in honor of their donor.
Today the music of the bells carries her name across the campus, and her story and the legacy of her gifts to Cornell are memorialized in a collection of monuments found along the crest of Libe Slope.
Jennie McGraw shared her father’s enthusiasm for the fresh university and his interest in its library. John McGraw, a founding trustee of Cornell, had provided the money to build McGraw Hall, located between Morrill and White Halls in today’s Arts Quad. When it was completed in 1872, the library was moved there from cramped quarters in Morrill Hall, and Jennie’s bells were placed in its tower, which had been specifically designed to house them. The library and the chime would reside in McGraw Hall until the fresh library building and its tower were completed in 1891.
Both father and daughter had intended to endow the university’s library with generous funds to build and maintain its collections, but neither lived to see this work accomplished. When John McGraw died in 1877, Jennie inherited the bulk of his estate. Working with many of Cornell’s “founding fathers”—Ezra Cornell, Andrew D. White, Judge Douglass Boardman, and her father’s former business partner and fellow Cornell trustee, Henry Williams Sage, Jennie prepared to continue and expand her father’s charitable donations to the university.
But she died tragically of tuberculosis at the age of 41 just four years later. Her will revealed some of her intentions:
“I also give and bequeath to said Cornell University $200,000 in trust to be securely invested and known as the McGraw Library fund, the interest and income thereof to be applied to the support, maintenance, and increase of the library of said university….I give, devise, and bequeath all the rest, residue, and remainder of my property (if any there shall be) to Cornell University.”
Her combined gifts to Cornell were estimated to be at least one million dollars—an astounding sum at that time—and included funds for building a student hospital and a monument to her father and Ezra Cornell. It was also presumed to include the mansion she commissioned architect William Henry Miller to build on the hillside just west of campus. With this bequest, it appeared that Andrew D. White’s dream of a great library building would be realized.
Unfortunately, there were complications. The size of her gift exceeded the university’s endowment limits set in its charter, which would require state legislative action to be amended. And in the waning months of her life, Jennie McGraw had married Cornell’s 1st University Librarian, Willard Fiske. Troubled by the university trustees’ actions to secure their bequest, he contested the will and spent the next nine years in litigation with the university.
When the United States Supreme Court ruled in Fiske’s favor, it appeared that many of Jennie’s gifts to the university were lost. Most of the estate formerly pledged to Cornell went to her husband, who had retired to a villa in Florence to continue his avocation of book collecting. The mansion intended as the university’s museum went to Jennie’s extended family, who subsequently sold the building along with the artwork and furnishings that she had collected for it.
Outraged by this outcome, Henry Williams Sage, the Ithaca businessman and university trustee who had been a financial advisor to Ezra Cornell and the McGraw’s, took it upon himself to fulfill Jennie’s plans. Sage donated the money to build the fresh library, hired William Henry Miller to design the Romanesque structure that we currently know as Uris Library, and established an endowment for the purchasing of library books.
In the fall of 1891 the university opened its 1st library building and the chimes were transferred to their currently permanent home in the fresh Library Tower. Recognized around the world as a symbol of Cornell University, it was renamed McGraw Tower in 1962.
Henry Sage had dedicated his efforts to Jennie and paid tribute to her with three library memorials. A plaque mounted at the entrance to Uris offers Sage’s edition of the “Great Will Case” that reads:
“The Great she tried to do shall stand as if ‘twere done; God finishes the work by noble souls begun. In loving memory of Jennie McGraw Fiske whose purpose to Found a great library for Cornell University has been defeated. This house is built and endowed by her friend, Henry W. Sage, 1891.”
Directly above the doors is a bronze portrait of Jennie by American sculptor Anne Whitney. Cornell was founded as a non-sectarian institution, but here at the entrance to the university’s Romanesque cathedral of books is the library’s guardian angel and patron saint.
The 3rd memorial is more subtle and perhaps the most telling of the three. Located high above the main entrance to Uris, three monograms with carved initials honor those most responsible for providing Cornell with its library: ADW for Andrew Dickson White, HWS for Henry Williams Sage, and JMG for Jennie McGraw. Sage intentionally left off the F of Jennie McGraw Fiske’s married name as a slight to Willard Fiske.
Fiske’s placed his own memorial to his wife inside the library in the Great Reading Room, currently known as the Dean Reading Room. Over the fireplace that is behind the current Circulation Desk is a marble bust of Jennie that honors her as a Cornell benefactress.
Funds from Jennie’s estate were used by the university to purchase additional bells for the chime, to set up an endowment for a student hospital, and to build an addition to Sage Chapel. Memorials at the tower entrance to Uris Library, outside the Gannett Health Services building in Ho Plaza, and on the north wall of Sage Chapel commemorate her generosity.
Sage Chapel’s Memorial Antechapel, built in 1883, is the final resting place for Ezra Cornell, Jennie McGraw Fiske, her father, her husband, and other Cornell dignitaries. Inside the chapel are several sarcophagi with reclining statues. A recumbent figure of Jennie, sculpted by Sir Moses Ezekiel rests below a stained glass window that pictures her surrounded by her nine bells.
If Jennie’s original intentions were thwarted by the legal case that challenged her will, they were more than fulfilled by another legal document: her husband’s last will and testament. Upon Willard Fiske’s death in 1904, he left Cornell nearly $600,000, a sum that exceeded the amount of money he had inherited from Jennie. In addition, he bequeathed his unrivaled collections of Dante, Petrarch, and Icelandic books and manuscripts to the Cornell University Library.
Jennie McGraw Fiske was a true supporter of Ezra’s dream. Through her generosity and Great intentions, and the philanthropy they inspired, Jennie McGraw Fiske, was able to provide Cornell with its original chime, its student hospital, the University Library, and several priceless book collections and library endowments. Although today’s students may not realize it, her gifts are key fixtures of the Cornell tradition that remains today.
On October 8, 1997 an astonishingly large, voluptuous pumpkin appeared nestled atop Cornell’s McGraw Tower. The pumpkin was thought to weigh up to 60 lbs., and sat pinned to the 173 foot Tower for several weeks. It was an incredible prank that made National news, which no one has come forth to claim credit. It remains a mystery as to how the stunt was pulled off, and the enigma has since passed on into Cornell lore.
Where is it currently? The pumpkin (or what remains thereof) is currently being stored by the Department of Psychology in the basement of Uris Hall, after removing it from the displayed Wilder Brain Collection.
Mr. Robert Stundtner, of maintenance, believes the pumpkin “remains in our hearts and minds.” Mr. Segelken, with Cornell News Service, said that it has “composted” and that it is—if you will—in pumpkin heaven.
On March 13, 1998, the Pumpkin was knocked down ahead of schedule by workmen maneuvering a crane that would hold the Provost in an official removing ceremony later.
News Coverage: The mystery and sheer daring of the prank generated coverage by the national news media, beginning with an article in The fresh York Times on Oct. 27. The Cornell Daily Sun ran a daily “Pumpkin Watch” through Halloween and Editor-in-Chief Hilary Krieger was interviewed live on the scene by Matt Lauer of the Today Show on Oct. 28. The Associated Press ran a news story and photo of the pumpkin that appeared in newspapers across the nation. The Cornell News Service handled radio interviews from cities as far away as Minneapolis and Reno, Nev. CNN, MTV and NBC news programs also carried pumpkin reports.