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A clear, bell-like tone for Asheville

On a calm day, crystal clear chimes echo from the top cupola of the Asheville City Hall building. Designed by Beaux Arts architect Douglas Ellington, the building spared little in expense or compromise. This project, championed by Asheville Mayor John Cathey, stood as a symbol of the new Asheville that emerged in the decade of the 1920s and would later stand as a symbol of its revival in the 1990s. This new building was also part of the master city plan of noted planner, John Nolen, who had come from Cambridge, Massachusetts to lay out the new city as it evolved from a small drover’s stop to a true metropolis. Despite how magnificent the new city hall building was, it was still missing the final touch: music to emanate from its ornate cupola. 

Mayor Cathey, wanting to pay tribute to the Asheville soldiers who had perished during World War I, saw a unique opportunity with this new building. Looking at other cities for inspiration, he found that they had installed a carillon in buildings of prominence like city buildings and houses of worship. A carillon or tower chime is an automated and manual contraption that will play melodies on a set of large chimes that can range from 10 tubular bells to 64 depending on the system. Arguably the best tower bell company in the world during the 1920s to purchase one of these systems from was the J.C. Deagan bell company of Chicago, Illinois. Deagan had been founded by John Calhoun Deagan in 1880 and initially made glockenspiels. They were noted for the development of the xylophone, vibraharp (vibraphone), organ chimes, aluminum harp, Swiss handbells, the marimba, orchestra bells and the marimbaphone. 

J.C. Deagan was a professional clarinetist who founded the company in St. Louis Missouri and later moved it to Chicago in the early 20th century. Deagan was unsatisfied with the intonation of glockenspiels used in theater orchestras, in which he performed. He began to experiment with the instrument’s acoustics and tuning and developed the first “scientifically tuned” glockenspiel. To further develop a better glockenspiel, he consulted the publication On the Sensations of Tone by German physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz. The Deagan company remained in control of his descendants for two generations and beyond. 

Deagan Factory Building - 1770 W. Berteau Ave. Chicago, Illinois. Photo by author

When it came to constructing the set of chimes for Asheville’s City hall, Mayor Cathey chose a 10 chime carillon for the newly minted city hall. Although the city was in the throes of the Great Depression, they began a fundraising campaign around 1927, which involved children depositing coins in a bank at schools in both Asheville City and Buncombe County school systems. It took $5,000 to purchase the chimes, which was fundraised from Cathey’s campaign. The wiring for these massive chimes was completed by local electrical firm, M.B. Haynes. The chimes were installed by Deagan’s master tech for the southeast, Roy Lofink. 

By 1932, Mayor Cathey had collected the money and the Deagan chimes had been ordered. Lofink arrived in Asheville to install the chimes on Monday June 27th 1932 and by Friday July 1, 1932, the chimes were being tested out and heard all over the city. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported that the following melodies were played to test out the new chimes: "Lead Kindly Lead," "Rock of Ages," "I Love You Truly," "Moonlight and Roses," "Home, Sweet Home," "My Old Kentucky Home," and other numbers.

It is estimated that the Deagan company produced around 440 tower tube instruments over a span of nearly 40 years. Lofink installed the lionshare of these instruments, with an estimated 155.5 installations in his logbook from 1923 to 1941. Only four of these 10 note municipal tower chimes were ever installed by Deagan, which makes Asheville’s set quite rare. The only municipalities to have these chime systems were the Sacramento Municipal Auditorium, the Seward County, Nebraska Courthouse, the Pretoria in South Africa and Asheville’s City Hall Building. 

Top Rung Tower Chimes working on Asheville's Deagan Chimes

The system’s ten cylindrical brass chimes weigh from 300 to 700 pounds each. The carillon can be played either manually, on a small keyboard or by means of paper rolls with holes marking the notes, similar to player-piano rolls. The keyboard or automatic player device actuate an electric solenoid, which operates a mechanical arm that strikes each chime note with a rawhide mallet. Only 16 Deagan tower chime systems were installed in North Carolina, all at various churches across the state. The fact that Asheville had an automatic playing apparatus is also a unicorn among these chime systems. 

Deagan automatic player unit - Library of Congress

The chimes were played regularly during the 1930s and 1940s to commemorate the old Rhododendron Festival, for conventions and to honor the death of public figures. In addition, regular concerts were performed during the winter holiday season. Asheville Attorney Lucille McInturff, who was also a musician, became the city’s semi-official chimer, playing the bells regularly for about 10 years. McInturff, the first person to ever play the chimes, also trained servicemen from the Air Force’s Weather wing to play the big instrument. The Air Force’s weather wing was headquartered in the Grove Arcade, since World War II. 

December 1959, Asheville Citizen Times - Matoka Wilson, a secretary in Asheville's Public Safety Department plays the carillon chimes, while Albert C. Dunn, assistant manager of the Water Department, watches. They were preparing for a series of Christmas concerts.

The bells stopped being used in the early 1960s, when the BB&T building (now the hotel Arras building) installed a speaker system on their roof to play recorded chime songs. These also became victims of weather and deterioration and stopped playing in the early 1980s. Production of Deagan tower chimes stopped around 1957. 

Today, it is estimated that more than Deagan 230 tower chimes survive, in various conditions. Many of the components of these systems can survive long periods of time in the weather and elements. Typically the parts that deteriorate over time are the wiring and wooden chime rack. There are still companies today that can repair and restore them. When it came time to restore Asheville’s Chimes, they chose William Pugh of Top Rung Tower Chime and Organ Service, which at that time was located in Lawrence, Kansas. In 1995, Pugh estimated the repairs and refurbishment of Asheville’s chimes at around $12,000. 

Pugh visited Asheville as early as 1989 to assess the chimes, but it wasn’t until almost a decade later that he completed the work. Initial restoration of the chimes was started in 1997. This involved constructing a cage around the chimes, so that birds could not damage them. The wiring, originally installed by M.B. Haynes in the 1930s had withstood the test of time and did not need refurbishing. The wooden rack holding the chimes was scraped clean and repainted. Pugh disassembled the chimes, cleaned, polished, painted and replated most of the original parts. The city had to remove asbestos insulation that surrounded some of the wiring for the chime system before Pugh began his work. The chimes were rededicated in a ceremony in 1999 where they played again for the city once again. 

Much like the original effort to raise funds for the purchase of the chimes, the children of Asheville and Buncombe County schools were called along to bring their spare change to help in the effort. When I was a student at Claxton Elementary school as a third grader in 1997, I remember much fanfare about this event. Large brass replica banks of Asheville’s city hall were installed in the lobby of our school. When coins were deposited in the bank, a bell would ring! This was fascinating to a child and made us want to bring in our spare change all the same. Sofa cushions and change jars were raided from our parent’s closets, to make these replica banks sing. 

The chimes are still operational today and have continued to receive regular maintenance to this day. Look up at the tower of city hall and you may see these chimes in a new light!

Special thanks to Jeff Crook at Chime Master for maintenance records on the chimes.

Resources used in this article:

The Asheville Times. (June 27, 1932). Roy Lofink Deagan Chimes City Hall. Retrieved June 4, 2024, from

Asheville Citizen-Times. (July 1, 1932). Roy Lofink - Installer of Asheville City Hall Deagan Chimes. Retrieved June 4, 2024, from

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