A Ringing Endorsement The Founder's Bell Now Has Historic Status. It Has Tolled The Hours In Phila. Since 1926.

Posted: June 22, 2000

It is Philadelphia's other bell - the one that's heard but not seen.

At 17 tons, the Founder's Bell, sitting just southeast of City Hall and more than 25 stories above Broad Street, makes the one-ton Liberty Bell seem like a souvenir.

Since New Year's Eve 1926, excluding Sundays, the sound of a new hour has resonated across the city, thanks to Rodman Wanamaker's tribute to his father, John, the department-store founder. Even so, a lot of people think it's the clock at City Hall that rattles the airwaves.

The Wanamaker tribute, housed in its custom-designed bell tower atop the former PNB Building - now known as One South Broad Street - was added last week to Philadelphia's Register of Historic Places. Prolific Philadelphia architect John T. Windrim designed the building, erected between 1929 and 1931. Windrim also designed the Franklin Institute and Girard Estate.

"Originally, the bell moved, but it shook the building," said Herbie Schwagerl, chief engineer at One South Broad Street and the connecting Widener Building. These days, a hefty hammer strikes the bell, driven by a 230-volt electric motor.

Rodman Wanamaker commissioned the bell from the Gillett & Johnson Foundry in Croydon, England, in 1926. In addition to paying homage to his father, Wanamaker intended the bell to be a tribute to the 150th anniversary of the United States, celebrated that year.

The bell first rang above the original John Wanamaker store at 13th and Chestnut, but the Wanamakers had ambitious expansion plans. Windrim's building was billed as the city's tallest skyscraper when it opened as Wanamakers' new men's store and office tower.

Since 1996, the building has been owned by J.P. Morgan Strategic Property Fund of New York City, said Sandra M. Richardson, vice president of Keystone Property Trust, which manages the building. She said the building has been renovated and has leases with First Union, the advertising agency Earle Palmer Brown, National City Bank, and various law firms.

Lately, the bell and tower have had a variety of visitors, from senior citizens' groups to photography classes from Temple University.

About 40 steps below the bell tower is a luxurious unoccupied penthouse apartment with five bedrooms and six baths, replete with marble fireplaces and elaborate cast-plaster crown molding.

The story goes, Schwagerl said, that Rodman Wanamaker brought his new bride to live in the snazzy digs with the bird's-eye view of the City Hall clock and panoramic vistas at every angle.

The new Mrs. Wanamaker never liked the place, however, because of the overhead neighbor, which took 90 seconds to strike 12 o'clock. So the Wanamakers moved out and an aunt moved in.

But for former Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski, this tuned bell was one of the world's largest, inspired sonorous pleasures, and he wrote in 1962: "It has one of the finest sounds I have heard anywhere in America, Europe or Russia."

Linda K. Harris' e-mail address is lharris@phillynews.com

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