Could Naperville demolish Moser Tower, Millennium Carillon?

 
 
Updated 7/12/2017 6:24 AM
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  • The future of the Millennium Carillon in Moser Tower along Naperville's downtown Riverwalk is in jeopardy because of structural problems with the bell tower that could cost millions of dollars to repair.

      The future of the Millennium Carillon in Moser Tower along Naperville's downtown Riverwalk is in jeopardy because of structural problems with the bell tower that could cost millions of dollars to repair. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

An icon. A symbol. A landmark. A gem. A cash cow. A controversy. A problem.

The Millennium Carillon in Moser Tower is all of these things to influential and everyday people as it enters its 18th year as part of the Naperville landscape along the city's scenic downtown Riverwalk.

For better or worse, the tower has become as much a symbol of Naperville as Arlington Park is to Arlington Heights or Woodfield is to Schaumburg.

But what it will be in years to come is up for debate, next by the city's Riverwalk Commission during a meeting Wednesday morning.

The 160-foot-tall tower, which houses 72 bells of all sizes, is not unsafe now, but it soon could be. A structural assessment determined it is suffering from corroded structural steel, cracking concrete, deteriorating sealant at the joints and a leaking plaza.

Meant to last a century, the tower is experiencing issues that could cost millions to repair after less than two decades largely because its lower 72 feet were not enclosed in glass as originally planned. Exposed to weather, the structure has aged beyond its years, leaving those who built it, those who took over its maintenance and even those who opposed it to decide its fate.

The idea of decommissioning the carillon and tearing down the tower is generating considerable discussion, which comes as a surprise to some and sounds like the only sensible solution to others.

Making basic fixes for a while to keep it safe remains an option, too, as are the possibilities of repairing it or repairing it and enclosing its base to prevent future damage.

As Naperville weighs what to do with the tower designed to celebrate the Millennium and the rare 72-bell instrument it contains, no strong consensus has emerged. Rather, donors, supporters and skeptics are preparing for the debate.

On one side stands a pitch to keep the carillon and improve it, finding a way to absorb and prioritize the projected $3.75 million cost. On the other lies a push to end the expense of the thing, tearing it down to spend Naperville's post-building-boom tax dollars on more pressing needs.

Keep it

Naperville's Millennium Carillon, dedicated in June 2000, was meant to last 100 years. Now, just 17 years later, some are pushing for the structure to be decommissioned and razed.
Naperville's Millennium Carillon, dedicated in June 2000, was meant to last 100 years. Now, just 17 years later, some are pushing for the structure to be decommissioned and razed. - Daily Herald file photo

"I think the carillon is a landmark. I think it's iconic," Naperville attorney Brien Nagle said. "I think it's a crown jewel in the Riverwalk area and that it would be extremely troubling for a city such as Naperville to ever decommission such an iconic community asset."

A member of the former Millennium Carillon Foundation that began fundraising for the project in 1997, Nagle sums up the thoughts of many who say they'd hate to see the carillon go -- no matter the cost.

The tower cost a total of $7.1 million. Although the foundation collected private donations from at least 137 supporters and intended to fully finance the project, expenses tripled when the group decided to make the tower accessible to the public.

To open during the millennium year, with a dedication in June 2000, carillon founders including Chuck Seidel and Jim Bergeron Sr. had to scrap plans to enclose the bottom of the tower in glass and add an elevator.

The first city carillonneur, Wylie Crawford, had to wear a hard hat and use a construction staircase to access the instrument for its first seven years.

Meanwhile, private funding began to dry up, partially because excitement for the project waned after the inaugural concert and partially because of a sagging economy.

By 2007, the city had taken over maintenance and operation of the structure and had completed several unfinished elements -- including the elevator. The cost to Naperville taxpayers was estimated at $5 million to finish the work and pay off debt the now-defunct foundation had accrued.

Ten years later, some families who donated money to buy the carillon's 72 bells say they're disappointed the city didn't spend a little each year to gradually enclose the base and protect the structure.

Still, donors such as Barbara Toepp, who bought a bell with her husband, Burt, in honor of their granddaughter who died before her second birthday, say the cost of doing the work at once shouldn't be insurmountable.

"There's got to be some way to save that thing," Toepp said. "There's a lot of money in Naperville."

Money aside, Crawford says the carillon's cultural significance makes it worthy of preservation. The bells chime out concerts for Halloween and Christmas and the tower is seen on weather forecasts on ABC 7 Chicago as a remote camera overlooks the suburbs.

"It's where people went on 9/11 to be together," Crawford said. "It's a focal point of the city."

Supporters of the Millennium Carillon say it has become a gathering place for Naperville residents in good times -- such as this fireworks display on Jan. 1, 2006, to celebrate the city's 175th anniversary -- and in bad times, such as after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Supporters of the Millennium Carillon say it has become a gathering place for Naperville residents in good times -- such as this fireworks display on Jan. 1, 2006, to celebrate the city's 175th anniversary -- and in bad times, such as after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. - Daily Herald file photo

The carillon is among the four largest in the country. Its bells came from the Netherlands. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people see its inner workings each year, on $3 tours led by the Naperville Park District.

"We have a spirited reputation for doing grand things," said Naperville native Carolyn Finzer, who roused the Naperville Community High School Class of 1965 to pitch in and buy a bell. "It all has a deep, deep meaning in the way it was designed and constructed."

The tower's four pillars represent the four core values of Naperville: family, education, community and commerce. It was designed by Charles Vincent George Architects, engineered by Roake and Associates and McCluskey Engineering Corp., and built by Schramm Construction Co. to portray a theme of time as the city marked the milestone year 2000.

"It's a pretty special place," Nagle said.

Without it, he says, Naperville wouldn't be Naperville.

"It's shocking that anyone would consider tearing it down," Crawford said. "It has to be preserved."

Demolish it

A structural assessment has determined Naperville's Millennium Carillon in Moser Tower is suffering from corroded structural steel, cracking concrete, deteriorating sealant at the joints and a leaking plaza.
  A structural assessment has determined Naperville's Millennium Carillon in Moser Tower is suffering from corroded structural steel, cracking concrete, deteriorating sealant at the joints and a leaking plaza. - Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Finances and uncertainties make the case for breaking away from the carillon era and tearing the tower down.

A structural assessment the city conducted for $50,000 identified the troubling cracks and corrosion, which could cause pieces to fall "without notice."

But Bill Novack, the city's director of transportation, engineering and development, said officials don't yet know whether these issues are getting worse or remaining effectively the same.

The city could fix the structure and maintain it as is for $3 million, fix it and enclose the base for $3.75 million, or maintain it for a while and then tear it down for $1.6 million. But it's unknown how effective these repairs would be.

The carillon was supposed to be financed entirely by private donors, but by 2007 the city had taken over maintenance and operation of the structure and had completed several unfinished elements -- including the elevator. The cost to Naperville taxpayers was estimated at $5 million to finish the work and pay off debt.
  The carillon was supposed to be financed entirely by private donors, but by 2007 the city had taken over maintenance and operation of the structure and had completed several unfinished elements -- including the elevator. The cost to Naperville taxpayers was estimated at $5 million to finish the work and pay off debt. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Although Naperville businessman Ray Kinney eventually donated to the carillon, he said he wasn't an "early adopter" and he worries the fixes needed now would be only the beginning.

"That thing is going to need continued maintenance and continued care and continued investment from now for a very long time," Kinney said. "The thing could literally start falling apart."

At a time when nonprofit organizations need city money to help them feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and care for people with disabilities, Kinney said he can't fathom spending millions on a bell tower -- no matter its symbolic place.

"It's probably time to learn our lesson," Kinney said. "The prudent choice would be to decommission it and take it down."

Immediate demolition would cost $660,000. That option, as well as the others being considered, would need to be funded from the capital improvements program, which pays for projects citywide such as road and bridge work and electric and sewer infrastructure.

Without a guarantee of effectiveness, fixing the carillon becomes a lose-lose situation, Riverwalk Commission Chairman Geoff Roehll says.

"We'll spend that money and we'll still have a carillon," Roehll said last month. "It'll be exactly the way it is today. Period."

The view from the carillon's 140-foot-high observation deck is spectacular, especially on a clear day, when downtown Chicago can be seen on the horizon.
The view from the carillon's 140-foot-high observation deck is spectacular, especially on a clear day, when downtown Chicago can be seen on the horizon. - Daily Herald file photo

If the tower is torn down, the city could use the bells in some sort of "Harmony Garden" along the Riverwalk. Several supporters say they'd like the bells they donated to remain in some public use.

But first the city has to decide how much its monument to the millennium means 17 years later.

"It's going to boil down," city council member Judith Brodhead said, "to, how important is this structure to Naperville?"

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