Tuesday, April 13, 1999

Will Newport bell rattle its neighbors?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        While Cincinnati drowns in a blizzard of studies and reports, Covington opens its new convention center. Fidelity Investments and Ashland Oil have taken up residence there. Gibson Greetings is moving. Newport is stocking up on penguins and fish for its completely enviable aquarium. Not to mention a 3D IMAX Theater on the way.

        Northern Kentucky is on a roll.

        But I am just wondering about this great big bell they are bringing to Newport.

        Two years ago, Northern Kentucky developer David Hosea announced he would build a 1,083-foot tower with a free-fall ride and the world's largest bell. That would have been a shade taller than the Eiffel Tower and almost twice as tall as the Space Needle in Seattle. Thinking big.

        Some of the original plans have been scaled down or scrapped. But Mr. Hosea and builder Wayne Carlisle didn't give an inch on that big, that really big bell. The World Peace Bell — weighing in at 66,000 pounds — was cast in France in December and will be loaded on a ship Friday,headed for New Orleans, scheduled to land in Newport by July.

Remembering Big Joe
        It's supposed to swing from a 72-foot-tall pavilion, ringing in the Year 2000. And I am wondering whether it will shatter the champagne glasses on Riverboat Row. Maybe we should give a thought to all the priceless stained glass in Covington's Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption. Have Newport's Mansion Hill residents taken the proper precautions with their vintage chimneys?

        Legend has it that when the region's other big bell pealed for the first time it shook buildings and shattered windows. And it's only about half as big as the new bell. St. Francis De Sales Church's “Big Joe” was rung by its clapper only once, in January of 1896. Since then, a hammer strikes the bell to sound the call to worship in East Walnut Hills.

        So will the world's largest free-swinging bell really swing? And if it does, will it rattle our teeth? There is only one place to go for answers to such questions — 444 Reading Road in Over-the-Rhine. This is the headquarters of the Verdin Co., which created the World Peace Bell.

        Verdin's president, James R. Verdin, patiently gave me a complicated lesson in bell clappers, springs and hammers. He even showed me the old clapper from Big Joe. I nodded wisely. I still had not a clue.

        But this I could understand.

        He said the Peace Bell, cast in December, rang for the first time last month. Nothing broke and the sound was “just gorgeous.”

        And that's the trick. This is a 12-foot-tall, 12-foot-wide bronze monument. It's one thing to build a soldier on a horse, but this is a sculpture that has to produce a musical note. Mr. Verdin says they plotted the sound by computer before the bell was cast.

        Is that why Big Joe blew the doors off the neighborhood? No computers? Mr. Verdin looks uncomfortable, squirms. “It's a good story, isn't it?” he says. “But I don't think it ever really happened.”

Peace cymbal
        He believes the reason the bell swung only once was because of some trembling in the bell's tower. No broken windows? “I don't think so,” he says. “The bell is just too big for the tower.”

        So we will not hear the sound of shattering glass all over Greater Cincinnati when the 5,600-pound clapper strikes? “I promise,” he says.

        This bronze monument, impossibly huge, already has brought international attention to Northern Kentucky. The Wall Street Journal — on its front page — called it a “peace cymbal.” On New Year's Eve, people on both sides of the Ohio River can hear its very deep, very musical bong — a perfect A on the C-major scale. It is the sound of progress.

        Clear as a bell.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. She can be heard on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com