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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Big Ben of the West

The Big Ben of the West

 

You see it while driving to work on U.S. 36 or while walking along 92nd Avenue. It soars 130 feet into the air and welcomes residents and visitors alike to Westminster. You might not think about it often, and seeing the 14-story structure has likely become a part of your daily routine. However, the bell tower at City Hall serves as much more than just a reminder of what time of day it is. The iconic landmark is an interesting piece of Westminster’s history and something we’re reminded of each time the bells ring.

The bell tower was built in 1988 as part of the new City Hall building at 4800 West 92nd Avenue. City staff at the time wanted to include a unique feature that would also serve a greater purpose. 

“Any element the City could initiate to help strengthen the sense of community, and identity, we wanted to do,” said Bill Christopher, former city manager of Westminster (1978-2001). “I have always felt that suburban communities struggle with their identities, especially with Westminster being in three school districts, and having seven or eight ZIP code districts. We thought having something very distinct that would catch your eye would help with the identity feature.”

The idea of a bell tower was born out of creativity and a desire to connect with a city of the same name across the pond. Westminster, England is a borough of London and home to England’s government buildings including Buckingham Palace and the most iconic clock tower in the world, Big Ben.

“Big Ben is a symbol of the center of the community,” explained Alan Miller, former assistant city manager of Westminster (1978-2001). “That’s where this all came from, it was all about symbolism and trying to make [City Hall] a sense of place.”

Miller served as project manager for the City Hall and bell tower construction project and proudly supported building a smaller-scale “Big Ben” in Westminster, Colorado. When it was time to break ground in 1986, the City welcomed the Lord Mayor of Westminster, England to attend a ceremony at the City Hall site and celebrate the connection between our two cities. The Lord Mayor gifted our community with an English oak tree which is still located on the City Hall property. 

When the project was completed in 1988, the finished product included 181 steps to the top of the tower, a clock, 14 bells, and a pyramid-shaped steel mesh structure, which inspired the City’s logo.

“My sense at the time is that the bell tower was pretty well accepted in the community. People seemed to take pride in it… so we later had the idea to add to it and make it a regular carillon,” said Miller.

A carillon is a pitched percussion instrument that is played with a keyboard and consists of at least 23 cast-bronze bells. To fund the purchase of 10 additional bells, the City launched a fundraising campaign in 1997 to collect the money privately through donations.

It didn’t take long for the City to secure enough generous donors in the community to fund the remaining bells, which cost $3,000 each. The new bells were cast by the Petit and Fritsen Bell Foundry in the Netherlands and were added to the tower in 1998 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the City Hall building. With the upgrade, Westminster’s bell tower became the second-largest carillon in Colorado. The largest is located at the University of Denver.

For years, the tower was open to the public allowing residents to experience the 360-degree view of the Front Range. For a short time, residents were even allowed to play the carillon. Public tours ended years later due to enhanced security measures.

Today, the bells ring Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every hour on the hour, with the number of rings corresponding to the hour.

When I hear the bells, they’re so soothing,” said Mayor Nancy McNally. “For me, whether I’ve been the mayor, not the mayor, even before I thought of being on the city council, [the bell tower] has been a special place. Plus, where else would our police officers learn to rappel?”

In the past, the Westminster Police Department utilized the bell tower for training SWAT officers in rappelling. At certain special events, officers have also dressed up in superhero costumes and rappelled off the tower, lowering themselves below to the smiling crowds.

Whether it’s inspiring logos, achieving a community identity, or serving as a training tool for the SWAT team, there is no denying that the bell tower has become synonymous with Westminster.

Former City Manager Bill Christopher sums it up. “The main motivation was to create a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a place where residents can proudly say ‘this is my city’. I think we accomplished that.”

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