Iconic campus clock tower evolved from smokestack disguise to soldier training site
Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 18:01
Rising through a shroud of mist on an unusually warm day, one pinnacle of stone dominates its surroundings: a sandstone tower with ringing bells that keep us connected to time and past.
It stands as a reminder to the evils of mankind, as well as the courage and sacrifice of individuals.
In a way, the campus clock tower is a voice to the history of the university, marking a time of change and expansion in the story of the institution it represents.
Over the last 85 years the tower has remained an enduring and iconic figure of the campus.
The story of the clock tower begins in the mid-1920s, when the University of Detroit was embarking on a plan of great expansion.
Originally the structure was designed solely as a smokestack for the university heating plant located at its base.
But according to Fr. Hermon J. Muller’s book “The University of Detroit 1877-1977 A Centennial History,” Fr. John McNichols, the university president who was leading development of the new campus, envisioned a place with a look and feel similar to those found overseas.$10 million worth of buildings marred by an enormous chimney,” Father Muller said. “The tower idea was quite coincidental.”
Construction of the 203-foot tower and its adjoined heating unit cost approximately $200,000 of the $10 million expansion program budget.
After it was decided that a tower would be built to conceal the heating stack, a contract for the design was awarded to the architectural firm Malsomson & Higgenbothom, which also designed many other buildings around Detroit during the 1920s.
“The tower was designed in the Spanish Mission style,” said David Vandelinder, director of facility operations and construction management.
Construction began in 1926 and the tower was ultimately finished in October 1927 when the bells were installed.
“Most of this work could not be replicated due to costs and the skills required,” said Vandelinder, who appreciates the architecture of the clock tower and UDM’s other old buildings.
Vandelinder said that though the tower looks much the same as it did in its early days, some changes have been made. The powerhouse that the tower serves currently runs on natural gas; it used to be fired by coal.
“There are still remnants of an elaborate coal conveyor system in the powerhouse,” he said.
For the past several years, the tower has also housed a resident group of peregrine falcons.
“Many falcon families have been raised in the tower,” said Vandelinder.
Early on, the tower was known as “Soldier Tower,” according to Pat Higo, special collections and archives librarian.
“It’s a memorial, dedicated to all of the University of Detroit students who were killed in World War I,” she said.
Later, the University’s ROTC students used the tower’s facade to conduct their repelling training. Since the university has ended its ROTC program, the name “Soldier Tower” has fallen out of use.
For Higo, there is a degree of mystery that surrounds the tower.
While there is dated photographic evidence showing the tower in various stages of completion, it is difficult to find written documentation of the exact day ground was broken for construction.
Nonetheless, Higo feels that the tower holds a special place among the various buildings on campus, most notably because it is tribute to the students who fought and died in the Great War.
Additionally, Higo said, “Everybody knows where the university is by the tower.”