If Towers Could Talk


When I decided to dedicate a month to museum architecture, I began listing the architecturally interesting museums and landmarks I have visited in my lifetime. There are many here in DC; others I have seen in travels to different states and countries.

Among these landmarks are some that literally tower above all others. How many kinds of towers can you think of? There are clock towers and bell towers, prison towers, lighthouses, water towers, radio towers, energy towers, control towers, etc. In the case of towers that serve as visitor attractions, the symbolism associated with a tall structure may be a major, or the only, reason for its existence.

Writing a detailed description of my visits to some towers would not be as easy as writing about a Weekly Museum Visit. Some of my excursions to towers happened almost a decade ago, and there are not a whole lot of interesting things I can say based on memory alone. So I went online, to see what these towers are up to these days.

Washington Monument

Washington Monument

Washington Monument. The Washington Monument has been in the news since it sustained damage in the August 2011 earthquake. It has been closed to the public since. Like any Washingtonian, I have had never-ending opportunities to see the obelisk from the outside (it is the tallest thing we have, after all). Several years ago, I saw the inside: I rode an elevator to the top with my fellow teacher and class of three-year-old students. My father has memories of climbing to the top via stairs (no longer an option by the time I visited).

Burton Memorial Tower

Burton Memorial Tower

Burton Memorial Tower. I could not find much press or social media about the University of Michigan’s Burton Memorial Tower, which I visited in 2005. However, I see from the university website that the bell tower continues to offer daily public performances, in which people can stand on the observation deck, just as I did eight years ago. I was able to take photos of the bells and the carillonneur (person who sounds the bells) up close. The campus has a second bell tower, the Lurie Tower, which I viewed from the outside only.

Houses of Parliament/Big Ben. In 2004, I toured the Houses of Parliament in London and gaped up at Big Ben from the ground below. The Houses of Parliament have a real Twitter account, while Big Ben is the inspiration behind several fake Twitter handles. One, @big_ben_clock, has only one word in its lexicon. “BONG,” it tweets at what is, to me, 8:00. “BONG BONG,” it tweets an hour later, signifying that it is 2:00 in London.

Big Ben

Big Ben

When Big Ben made headlines in 2012 for its new name, Elizabeth Tower, another Twitter account launched: @BigBenIsAngry. This handle claims to be a translation of all those BONGs – finally letting us know what Big Ben is really thinking. “I’ve got hands on my clock and I’m not afraid to use them,” threatened the parody account in a Tweet.

Big Ben may be the clock tower’s traditional name, but the reason for the name change is steeped in tradition, too. Parliament’s other tower is named after Queen Victoria, who celebrated her diamond jubilee (60 years on the throne) in 1897. Last year, when Queen Elizabeth became the second British monarch to achieve this milestone, she also got to have a clock tower named after her – hence the name change for Big Ben.

Engine room at Tower Bridge

Engine room at Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge. London’s Tower Bridge, which I also visited in 2004, maintains an active Twitter presence for providing information and interacting with fans. According to information online, the attraction continues to offer views of the engine room and of the city below, just as it did when I visited. There is also an unofficial, but quirkily informative, Twitter handle that speaks of Tower Bridge in the first person. Its tweets consist solely of announcing the drawbridge’s up-and-down activity, for example, “I am closing after the MV Dixie Queen has passed downstream.”

Old Post Office Pavilion

Old Post Office Pavilion

Old Post Office Pavilion. Here in DC, a few blocks away from the Washington Monument, the Old Post Office Pavilion has a tower – a tower that is getting more visitation now that the Monument is closed. One can take an elevator ride up to panoramic views of the city. I had been to the building many times (to get free ice cream with that same preschool class during Ben and Jerry’s annual promotion, to buy cheap vegetable pakoras, to see the many decorated Christmas trees in December), but I had not ridden the elevator to the top. I initially planned to write this blog post without taking that ride, but the more I read, the more I decided I needed to see the view for myself. So I visited recently, and saw the exhibit on the ninth floor, the Bells of Congress on the tenth floor, and the observation deck on the twelfth floor.

The Bells of Congress were a gift to the United States from England in 1976. They were meant for the Capitol, but could not be put there; they were installed in the Old Post Office instead. Ringing of the bells occurs on special occasions and, for practice, every Thursday evening.

In the past, the building was DC’s post office, before my beloved National Postal Museum took over that function in 1914. In the present, the upper floors house several government agencies, and the lower levels have souvenir shops and a food court. In the future – well, what we know from news reporting is that Donald Trump has bought the building and plans to make it a luxury hotel, and that keeping the tower itself open to the public is a stipulation of the deal.

The Old Post Office Pavilion was saved from demolition in the 1970s after strong public outcry. In the exhibit is the following quote from National Endowment for the Arts chair Nancy Hanks: “Old Buildings are like old friends, they reassure people in times of rapid change. They encourage people to dream about their cities – to think before they build, to consider alternatives before they tear down.”

Do you have a favorite tower? What does it communicate through its architectural elements, bell ringing, or web presence?

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January’s blog theme is Communication Is Architecture.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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