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Thursday; October 18, 2001 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific

UW bell has historic ring for campus and city alike

By Stuart Eskenazi
Seattle Times staff reporter


Brewster Denny, daughter Maria Denny and granddaughter Ella Patricia Kodjababian, 8 months, pose with the bell that hung for more than a century in Denny Hall at the University of Washington.

A 400-pound, cast-iron bell that hung in the Denny Hall cupola at the University of Washington for more than 100 years — and functioned as an earmark for a brand new city before then — enjoys a lofty place in Seattle history.

The bell signaled the passing of ages, ringing to mark the assassinations of President Lincoln in 1865 and President Kennedy in 1963.

These days, the bell rests on a short ledge inside the UW's main machine shop. Grounded the past five years, its future is uncertain. But not due to lack of interest.

Brewster Denny, great-grandson of Seattle forefather Arthur Denny, treats the bell like a family heirloom. He has rung it every year since 1961 to commemorate UW homecoming, a tradition he has passed down to his daughter, Maria Denny, who plans to pass it on to her daughter, Ella Patricia Kodjababian, 8 months old.

The three generations of Dennys visited the machine shop this week to ring the bell for the 2001 homecoming, which is highlighted by tonight's pep rally in a plaza north of Husky Stadium and Saturday's football game against the University of Arizona.

Regard for the bell also extends to building-maintenance workers who have safeguarded it. They, too, want the bell back in a suitable place.

"When they have an opportunity to care for something that is a university artifact, they really enjoy that," says Rick Cheney, maintenance-and-alterations director.

Interest in the bell is keen this year because Nov. 13 marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Arthur Denny and other original Seattle pioneers at Alki Point.

A careful inspection

The bell was removed from Denny Hall's open-air cupola in 1996 during a building restoration. Colin Sandwith, a pre-eminent mechanical engineer from the UW's Applied Physics Laboratory, who also inspects Navy submarines for corrosion damage, was brought in to assess the bell's condition. He determined the assemblies keeping the bell in place were unstable, creating a safety hazard.

The bell had problems of its own. Exposed to Seattle weather extremes for 100 years, it also endured a century's worth of visits from birds who found no harm in leaving deposits on an important relic. Corrosion jeopardized its long-term fitness.

University officials have considered three options for the bell's future: returning it to the cupola, displaying it inside Denny Hall or showcasing it within a new ground-level structure somewhere else on campus.

Cheney says that the floor plan of Denny Hall's lobby makes an exhibit there unfeasible and that estimated costs for a new humidity-controlled structure are as high as $100,000. The UW therefore is leaning toward returning the bell to the belfry, which is Brewster Denny's preference.

"Of course, I'd love for it to go back into the cupola," he says. "But not if that's not the best thing for the bell."

Sandwith says the bell will have to go undergo significant restoration if returned to the cupola. In addition to an industrial-strength cleaning, the bell must be X-rayed for cracks.

Exhibit captures history

The METROPOLIS 150 exhibit at the Museum of History & Industry documents 15 decades of Seattle and King County history. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and features hundreds of rare photographs and artifacts, many never before shown. Admission is free on Seahawks home-game Sundays. More information is available at or 206-324-1126.
Pockmarks from the corrosion would need to be filled with an epoxy, and an aluminum coating could be applied. The second skins, however, could change the bell's appearance and dampen its tone — a fair trade-off, Sandwith says, to extend the bell's life.

If returned to the cupola, the bell and the assemblies holding it in place would require routine maintenance, he says.

"I would feel bad if we don't properly diagnose what is needed," Sandwith says.

The bell, like the university, dates to the Civil War era.

About a decade after landing at Alki, Arthur Denny and his wife, Mary, donated 8-2/3 acres on the outskirts of the sparsely populated village of Seattle to help establish the university's first campus. Located where the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel now stands downtown — that's why the street is called University — the UW began classes in 1861.

The bell, needed to signal the start and end of classes, was put into service the next year. Purchased from an upstate New York foundry for $368, the bell made its way to Seattle around the tip of South America, according to a 1995 memoir in Columns, the UW's alumni magazine. It was lifted into the tower of the old university building and rung for the first time March 19, 1862.

Tolling the Great Seattle Fire

The story says the bell also was rung to alert residents to the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 and to commemorate the deaths of prominent local people, including Arthur Denny, who died in 1899.

"Its tones — which could be heard as far away as Port Madison, 14 miles across the Sound, or as far south as Renton — were frequently used to alert ships coming into foggy Elliott Bay," the story says.

When the UW moved to its present location in 1895, the bell moved with it, hauled by wagon. It was placed in the crownlike cupola of the only structure on campus at the time, an attractive sandstone-and-brick building with turrets. Christened the Administration Building, it was renamed Denny Hall in 1910.

The bell signaled classes at the new campus until 1912, when chimes donated by Seattle Times Publisher Alden J. Blethen took over that duty. The chimes were destroyed in a 1949 fire. An electronic carillon, housed in the bell tower of Denny Hall, sounds the daytime hours on campus today.

Brewster Denny, a 1945 UW graduate, has rung the bell before every homecoming game since he returned to Seattle from Washington, D.C., to start the UW's School of Public Affairs 40 years ago. But rather than ascend to the Denny Hall attic, he now stops by the machine shop on his way to Husky Stadium.

He also has routinely rung the bell during homecoming pep rallies on campus. Since 1996, shop workers have been delighted to transport the bell there by truck.

To keep the tradition alive, Denny rang the bell early this week. Scheduling conflicts make his attendance at tonight's rally impossible and Saturday's game improbable.

No ringing of the bell stands out in Denny's mind more than his first, which coincided with the university's centennial. He served as assistant bell-ringer that year with the late Jack Nichols, a former UW basketball star.

The bell's clapper had been stolen — a fraternity prank, no doubt — so it could not be rung in the usual way, pulling a chain 50 feet below the belfry.

Instead, Denny and Nichols climbed a ladder to the cupola, sidestepping the ample bird droppings. Inside the belfry, they could strike the bell dead-on.

"We found an old piece of pipe," Denny recalls. "And we rang it with that."

Stuart Eskenazi can be reached at 206-464-2293 or

Related info:

Who made Seattle history?
See the full list of people who were nominated by Seattle Times readers and visitors to MOHAI.

History reprints available
Reprints of The Seattle Times series "150 Years, Seattle By and By" will soon be available by mail for $11.95, which includes tax, postage and handling.

The package will include all articles, maps and photos from the series, reformatted on 8½-by-11-inch paper and printed in black and white in a spiral-bound volume.

Make checks payable to:
The Seattle Times
150 Years, By and By
P.O. Box 1735
Seattle, WA 98111

If you would like to pay by credit card, phone the resale department at 206-464-3113 to place an order. Please allow two weeks after the last installment of the series is published Nov. 11.

Related links
Museum of History & Industry
The Washington State Historical Society
National Register of Historic Places
UW archives
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