Mystery in Niles: Bells in Leaning Tower could date back to 17th, 18th centuries

Tuesday, 10 October 2017, 10:48:08 PM. High inside the iconic Leaning Tower of Niles are remnants of another time and place.

High inside the iconic Leaning Tower of are remnants of another time and place.

Five bronze bells, three bearing religious motifs and Latin inscriptions, wait to ring again. The writing on the Latin-inscribed bells suggests their ages.

One dates back nearly 400 years.

If their ages can indeed be proven, they could very well be among the oldest church bells hanging in the United States — and the rarest, according to Kim Schafer, founder of Chicago Bell Advocates, an organization dedicated to helping owners of tower bells restore and maintain them.

"If you go to Mexico, which was a colony of Spain dating back much longer and had a strong Catholic tradition, you will find bells as old or even older. But in the United States, it's much rarer," Schafer said.

But where did they come from? And how did they get to Niles?

Schafer and her organization are helping to unravel the origins of the bells as the village of Niles continues its renovation of the Leaning Tower, a half-size replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which has stood along Touhy Avenue since the 1930s.

Niles Mayor Andrew Przybylo said restoring the bells so they can ring once again is a goal.

"Maybe by adding one or two more we could create enough tones, enough notes to chime out some music," he said. "If we do a celebration at the base for some holiday, maybe there's a way to chime out some music."

According to the book "The History of Niles, Illinois," written by Dorothy C. Tyse and published in 1974 to mark the village's 75th anniversary, construction of the 94-foot-tall Leaning Tower of Niles began in 1932 and was undertaken by businessman Robert Ilg as a way to conceal a water tank that supplied spring water for two outdoor pools on the site.

When the tower was completed two years later, Ilg "dedicated it to the memory of Galileo," who demonstrated that objects of different weights fall at the same speed when he dropped various items from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Tyse's book said.

At the time, the property on which the tower stood was a park for employees of Ilg's electric ventilating company. Later, Ilg would leave the tower — and the land surrounding it — to the YMCA, with the stipulation that it remain standing until 2059 and an average of $500 be spent on maintenance annually, the Chicago Tribune reported.

This summer, the village of Niles took over ownership of the tower after years of leasing it from the Leaning Tower YMCA and paying to maintain it, said Przybylo. The cost of the purchase was $10.

Following previous studies that determined extensive repairs to the tower were required, the village began rehabilitation work. So far, approximately $750,000 worth of repair and restoration of the tower's exterior has been completed, said Mary Anderson, director of public works for the village of Niles. This work does not include restoration of the bells or replacing existing railings around the tower's exterior, she said.

It was the potential historic nature of the bells that came to light during the tower renovations, said Bernie DiMeo, spokesman for the Leaning Tower rehabilitation project.

Przybylo said little had been said about the bells during his political career with the village, which dates back nearly 30 years.

"I don't remember anybody highlighting the bells," he said. "They were a treasure we didn't know we had."

A report from Chicago Bell Advocates, completed at the request of the village of Niles, found that three bells, dated 1623, 1735 and 1747, were each cast in Italy, and that at least one of them likely hung in a church in Cavezzo, a town about 150 miles northeast from Pisa.

"Chicago Bell Advocates has no reason to doubt at this time that the three Italian bells are authentic and date from the 17th and 18th centuries," the report reads.

Each bell features Catholic imagery: A crucifix. Madonna and child. Faces of cherubs. A grape vine. The oldest bell is inscribed, in Latin, with a line from a Catholic prayer in devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus: "Ave Maria, full of grace, the Lord be with you."

A fourth bell, according to the report, is dated 1912, and appears to have been created at a foundry in San Francisco. It bears a leaf pattern and an inscription in Italian that includes the word "Vespruccio," which, according to the research report, is the name of one of the bells in the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Robert Ilg lived in San Francisco as a young man, according to "The History of Niles, Illinois."

The fifth bell in the tower is undated and cracked, though it can be repaired to ring again, the report says.

Since the report was compiled, Chicago Bell Advocates spoke with a researcher in Cavezzo, Italy, who found that church bells in Cavezzo were sold to a foundry in Milan in the 1930s in order to be recast for new bells, Schafer said. That was right around the time the Leaning Tower's bells arrived in Niles, so Schaefer believes it is entirely possible that instead of recasting, the bells were sold — and are as old as their dates say.

"I think they just sold them to Ilg or some middle man who then sold them to Ilg," Schaefer said.

But details of the acquisition to confirm Schaefer's theory have not yet been found.

"We have been trying to uncover that story, and it's unclear how the connection was made between Robert Ilg and this foundry," Schaefer said. "That's a mystery we will hopefully one day be able to uncover."

Chicago Bell Advocates also recovered written correspondence between a Cavezzo church and the foundry, but they require translation, Schaefer said.

While a process called a metallurgical analysis can help "narrow down the ages of the bells," the method is not foolproof, Schaefer said. The Chicago Bell Advocates report indicates that there are several opportunities for additional research, including searching records of the United States Customs Service, which can found in the National Archives, and conducting research within the community of Cavezzo, Italy.

Chicago Bell Advocates has not been contracted for additional studies at this time, and the organization is currently advising the village on how to remount the bells and get them ringing again, as they are not currently operational, Schafer said.

It is unclear when the bells last sounded, but newspaper reports from the last several decades seem to indicate that hearing the bells was not a common event.

In October 1958, the Chicago Tribune reported that the bells rang for the first time in 15 years to celebrate $54,000 raised by YMCA workers for renovation work inside the tower and construction of an athletic field, ice skating rink and camping area on the grounds, which was the headquarters of the Skokie Valley YMCA.

In November 1963, special note was made of the ringing of the bells when ground was broken for new YMCA facilities, including the construction of residential accommodations, which still exist, the Tribune reported.

Anderson, the village's public works director, said she has heard the sounds of the functioning bells, describing them as having a "decent tone," but still in need of work.

"We were really excited when Chicago Bell Advocates started working on this for us," she said. "It's a very cool piece of history in Niles."

Once the current tower renovation is complete, it will be available for visitors to explore, Przybylo indicated.

"The plan is to clean it up, turn [the first floor] into a visiting center where people can be told the story of the tower and bells before they proceed up the stairs," Przybylo said.

He added that the hope is to allow groups to climb the tower by next spring or summer, with a goal of the tower securing a place on the National Registry of Historic Places.

"It's part of our brand," Przybylo said of the Leaning Tower. "Our brand and our village logo is the Leaning Tower. A lot of people know about it."

The tower renovation is part of a large-scale, multi-acre development plan for the area, known as the Touhy Triangle. The village in 2015 created a tax increment financing district for the triangle, which includes properties bordered by Gross Point Road, Lehigh Avenue and Touhy Avenue, as well as some additional nearby properties.

Przybylo said the plan envisions a "recreation and entertainment park, much like MB Financial Park in Rosemont," in addition to residential and retail development. Reserving space for an "artist colony," which would include studios and living areas, is also part of the concept, he said.

Twitter: @Jen_Tribune

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