by Shelly Robinson and Robert Kimmel
Hidden away high up in the stone belfry of the Washington Irving Memorial Chapel just inside the north gate of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is a set of 10 tubular bell tower chimes installed in 1923. Known for their fine musical qualities with rich and mellow tones, guaranteed never to crack or go out of tune, they are capable of playing over 230 songs, from folk music, to ballads, patriotic tunes and hymns. Each chime weighs 550 pounds and is fitted with a patented damper mechanism.
Nestled in the corner of the cemetery’s front office in the chapel is a small oak table holding a tiny oak keyboard with 10 original ivory keys. An on-off button is mounted on a single brass plate on the side of the table. A cluster of old wires protrudes from the keyboard and disappears into the chapel wall.
The power for the chime system is traceable to the chapel basement where a threaded steel conduit goes from the circuit breaker box up through the ceiling. Another steel conduit comes down from the basement ceiling and terminates at an original 4×4 junction box from the 1920s. Completing the rest of the electrical system are obsolete fuses, motors, bearings, voltmeters, generators and more wires.
Sadly, decades have passed since the Washington Irving chimes have played music for chapel visitors. The electrical system is in need of extensive repair. There is a rare opportunity now to restore the chimes to their original glory and join an elite group of only about 120 original Deagan chime sets still functioning in the entire country. Sleepy Hollow could join that exclusive group and contribute to music history.
James Logan, superintendent of the cemetery, estimated that it has been more than 30 years since the chimes rang out tunes from the belfry. While there have been discussions about restoration of the chimes over the past decade, other projects took precedence, Logan explained. However, the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery Historic Fund, which raises preservation money, has launched a fund raising effort to restore the Deagan chimes, and some funds have already been contributed, according to Logan. While the keyboard would remain, the system would be automated, he said.
Logan noted the historical aspect of the chimes, focusing on a metal plaque above the small keyboard for the chimes which reads, “Washington Irving Memorial Chimes, Erected in the Chapel of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Tarrytown, N.Y., A.D. 1923.” (Sleepy Hollow was North Tarrytown until it changed its name in 1996.)
An expert restorer of tower chimes, William Pugh of the Top Rung Tower Chime & Organ Service of Athens, Tennessee, visited the chapel, assessed the job, and enthusiastically agreed to tackle the restoration of the chimes. The price tag for the work: $30,000. Pugh first saw the Sleepy Hollow chimes during a visit in the late 1980s, and said “they had been dead for years.”
“Putting the chimes back into their original condition is practical, so they would be good for decades to come,” Pugh told The Hudson Independent. He described the Deagan Tower Chimes Systems as “… the very best, finest equipment.” Some 440 or so were built by the J.C. Deagan Company of Chicago between 1917 and 1958, according to Pugh. He has restored 35 of the systems.
Pugh explained that the chimes are not electronic, but they are electro-mechanical and an acoustic instrument with no amplification. He said that the cemetery wanted the restoration to include an automated system with its 10 chimes playing some 220 tunes without the use of the keyboard. However, keeping the keyboard intact would also allow tunes to be played manually. The automated system consists of a perforated roll mechanism, which, if coupled with a clock, is programmable to play at a set time.
Initially an employee in a pipe organ factory, Pugh began his own company in 1987, and said he loves his work. “I consider my work historic preservation,” which would be an appropriate description for his potential undertaking at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery which Pugh called, “an incredible place.”