In the early morning of Sept. 4, 1980, an arson fire ravaged the last three buildings of the shuttered John B. Stetson hat-factory complex at Fourth and Cadwallader Streets, and the great Stetson bell, installed in the seven-story clock tower in 1892, crashed to the ashy ground below.
The buildings — all that remained of the once mighty complex — were destroyed and the 2,500-pound bronze bell was silenced, its tower left a charred ruin, its clapper gone missing.
During Stetson’s glory years of the 1920s, the bell tolled the day for the company’s 5,000 workers, calling them to the job and releasing them at the end of the day. It announced the opening of their building-and-loan association and their Sunday school. It marked their holiday celebrations, their illnesses, their meals, their hospital — a miniature city within 25 redbrick buildings occupying nine gritty acres of Kensington, workplace of the world. Only the hospital building, on North Fourth Street, remains standing today.
After the fire, the bell was gathered up by the Atwater Kent Museum, the official repository of the city’s material culture, where it has been silently in storage ever since.
And that’s where Robert Blackson, Temple Contemporary’s director of exhibitions and public programs, encountered it a year or so ago. The bell tolled for him.
“This crazy, gargantuan factory making things that you wouldn’t expect,” Blackson said recently. “I didn’t know they even made Stetson hats in Philadelphia!”
Blackson, who teaches at Tyler School of Art and Architecture, has rescued the bell, negotiated it out of storage, brought it back near its old neighborhood, and installed it in the TC gallery, in the 1200 block of Norris Street, an exhibition completely unto itself.
It will hang there until Dec. 13. But it will not be silent.
For one thing Blackson intends to invite musicians in to play the bell.
So shortly after a trio of riggers from Ambrose Rigging Co. in Montgomeryville maneuvered the bell into place recently, lashing it to gallery ceiling hooks with thick steel cable, percussionist Christopher Powell pulled a mallet from his bag, approached the bell, now hanging 6 feet, 8 inches off the floor, and tapped it.
For the first time in 39 years, the Stetson Bell, manufactured by the McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore, Md., in 1889, resonated, giving off a deep, clear tone, well, like a bell. Powell tapped it again. The bell responded. And again.
Powell switched to some sticks and began playing a clickety-clack rhythm punctuated with clangs from mallet tapping. The bell maintained an even tone all around its circumference, changing pitch slightly when Powell jumped from the floor to tap higher up on its surface.
“Sounds beautiful,” said Powell. “I’ve got a little thing to record. I want to see how that works.”
He returned to his bag and withdrew a small yellow electronic device, a Kaleidoloop, a kind of portable sound collector. Powell raised it up inside of the bell and tapped with the mallet. The Kaleidoloop recorded the tone, which Powell then played back and manipulated, producing a series of throngs and vibrant flat tones that rose and fell across the scale.
At times the 19th century classic bronze bell sounded a bit like a theremin out of 1950s science-fiction movies.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “This is really nice. It’s meditative to ring a bell. Nice and chill.”
Blackson examined the bell, where someone in the long ago graffitied “Gary Bell” in crayon on the outside surface. The inner surface has a thick charcoal residue left over from the smoldering fall from the tower in 1980.
There is no clapper. Where is the missing clapper?
It seems when officials arrived on the scene in the wake of the fire, the clapper was already gone.
Richard Tyler, then-director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, told the Inquirer at the time that “a youth offered to return the clapper for $150.”
“But I didn’t take him up on it,” Tyler said.
Since then the bell has languished in a warehouse surrounded by the vast collection of the now-shuttered Philadelphia History Museum, formerly known as the Atwater Kent Museum. (The museum building closed last year and the city is seeking to transfer the collection to Drexel University.)
In Blackson’s view, the bell out of sight in the warehouse is emblematic of all the objects and artworks held by collecting institutions — but never seen by visitors. The history museum has a collection of more than 130,000 artifacts. But in the years its museum building on South Seventh Street was open, at most only about 450 to 500 objects were on display.
“What we see and what we don’t see,” said Blackson, is a result of “curatorial choices.” George Washington’s presidential desk was on display at the museum; Stetson’s bell was not.
“I can do my part, Temple Contemporary can do its part to continue to reanimate that collection,” said Blackson. “The charge to all of us who work in culture is to recognize the changes in the city. How are we going to reimagine this collection in ways that support the understanding of the history of the city?”
In addition to making the bell visible and audible again, and in so doing, resurrecting a critical part of the city’s manufacturing past, Blackson is hoping there are still former Stetson workers living in the area today. He wants them to come to the gallery, see the bell, and perhaps talk about the daily life at Stetson and what role the bell played.
Did it toll when the Stetson became a hatmaker in name only? Did it toll when Stetson closed the complex for good in 1971? Did it toll when the city demolished most of the complex in the late 1970s?
Does it ring in memory?