Burton Memorial Tower

Burton Tower

The first suggestion of a campanile for the University appeared in May, 1919, in an editorial in the Michigan Alumnus. The writer lamented the necessity of removing the clock and chimes from the tower of the old Library Building to the Engineering Shops Building where, he feared, the bells could no longer be heard for any distance. He expressed the hope that eventually a new clock tower might be “set high in the center of the Campus, to be at once a landmark and a thing of beauty” and suggested that the need for such a campanile offered opportunity to some alumnus who might desire to leave a memorial “at once practical and beautiful.”

When the University Library was torn down to make way for the New Library, Mortimer Cooley asked for the clock and chimes to be put in the Engineering Shops Building Tower.  The clock and chimes rang at 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. to signify the beginning and end of the study day.  When Burton Tower and the Baird Carillon were finished in 1936, the clock and chimes had outlived their usefulness.

University Library

Demolition of Library Clocktower

July, 1917

Engineering Shops

President Burton, in his Commencement address of 1921, gave further life to this idea by suggesting the erection of a tower to serve as a memorial to the 236 University of Michigan men who had lost their lives in World War I. He envisioned a campanile tall enough to be seen for miles, suggesting that it stand at the approximate center of an enlarged campus as evidence of the idealism and loyalty of the alumni. As a result of President Burton’s suggestion, the directors of the Alumni Association were authorized to consider ways and means for the construction of such a building.

The proposal that the tower serve as a memorial to Michigan alumni who had lost their lives in World War I failed to meet with general approval. After President Burton’s death in 1925, a suggestion was made by Shirley W. Smith, Secretary of the University, that no more fitting memorial to President Burton could be devised than the campanile and chimes which he had always hoped for. This idea found immediate favor with the alumni, and plans for a campaign were formulated under the general direction of the Alumni Association. The University of Michigan Club of Ann Arbor made the erection of the tower part of its contribution to the Ten-Year Program, while each of the classes which had graduated during President Burton’s tenure undertook to raise funds for the carillon. In this program it was estimated that some 18,000 graduates would be approached and a total of $89,000 raised.

A plan of organization was developed, but the onset of the depression caused the temporary abandonment of the plan, and it was not until Charles Baird gave the carillon of fifty-three bells to the University in 1935 that the matter of the tower was again revived.

Several sites were suggested as possibilities for the carillon, including the roof of Angell Hall and the tower of the Michigan Union. These all proved impracticable, and it became evident that the construction of a bell tower would be the only solution. The University, however, did not have sufficient funds for the erection of such a building, although the Murphy and Hegeler Music Building funds were transferred to the Tower Fund by the directors of the University Musical Society, and the Regents supplemented this nucleus by other available funds held in trust. The University of Michigan Club of Ann Arbor undertook to raise the $25,000 still necessary to complete the tower.

A Carillon Tower was part of the original plans for Angell Hall.

It was determined that the proposed tower should be of practical as well as aesthetic; otherwise, University funds could not be used for its construction. Moreover, it was to be built near the center of the developing campus and the proposed School of Music building, since the classrooms in the tower were to be used by that School. These considerations resulted in the eventual choice of the site adjacent to Hill Auditorium.

Proposed tower by Eliel Saarinen
Proposed Music School & Tower

Proposed Music School & Tower on Ingalls Mall


The Burton Memorial Tower was erected during the 1935-36 school year and was formally dedicated on December 4, 1936. Simple in general outline, it was built of Indiana limestone with long shallow buttresses extending to the top and emphasizing its height. The tenth floor, on which the bells were housed, was designed to provide opportunity for visitors to view the surrounding terrain from the terrace between the outer screens and the inner screens protecting the bells and the playing mechanism. Access to the bell chamber was designated at times on a sign board at the entrance to the Tower. The bell chamber which was forty feet high, with an observation floor above, was designed to offer the largest possible openings for the sound of the carillon. Its floor was 120 feet from the ground; the over-all height of the Tower was 212 feet. It was 41 feet 7 inches square, containing a basement and ten floors, and 19,848 square feet of floor space. Albert Kahn, of Detroit, was the architect. The final cost of the Tower was $243,664.61.

Immediately below the bell chamber were the offices and practice studio of the carilloneur; the mechanism for control of the clock and the “Cambridge Quarters” played automatically on five of the large bells was also on this floor; the seven stories below contained some forty classrooms, practice rooms, and divisional music library, all utilized by the School of Music. On the first floor were the offices of the University Musical Society. An elevator serviced the first eight floors of the Tower.

This rather unusual use of the Tower was made possible through the novel plan of its construction. Instead of thick masonry walls, the building was constructed as a reinforced concrete shell faced with limestone. This afforded a much larger floor area and ensured a more rigid structure.

Inscribed on the walls in the entrance foyer were the names of the many alumni and friends of the University who contributed to the erection of the building.

(The University of Michigan: An Encyclopedic Survey, p.1591) 

Construction of Burton Tower

President Marion Leroy Burton

The Baird Carillon

Charles Baird

The largest bell - in the foundry

Bourdon Bell on the truck
Hanging the Bourdon Bell

Presenting the Bells

Hoisting the Bourdon Bell