Two Moments in NC State Time, Encapsulated at the Belltower

Belltower cornerstone

On a crisp, sunny November morning in 1921, a group gathered to lay the cornerstone of what would become NC State’s Memorial Belltower.

The crowd, estimated at 3,000 in local news and a later front-page Alumni News article, covered and surrounded an improvised wooden platform built around the tower’s foundation. It witnessed a ceremony that included 800 students in ROTC regimental military parade formation and a spirited address by alumnus and future governor O. Max Gardner.

The ceremony also featured the dedication of a copper box inside the hollow cavity of the cornerstone to capture the moment.

Reportedly inside this time capsule box: a list of “2,000 men of the College who served in the war” and those who died, copies of both Raleigh newspapers from the date, photographs of college president Wallace Carl Riddick and the campus, and college publications.

The vision for the 115-foot stone Belltower was grand and the fundraising for it, challenging. The university community was much smaller in those days, and it had endured the Spanish flu pandemic as well as World War I, the event behind the tower’s existence.

After much change, expansion and progress through the decades, NC State finds itself in another extraordinary time. A century later, what might a new Belltower time capsule include? What’s important to record about this moment? We’ll soon find out.

A new time capsule effort kicked off in April. Members of the spring 2020 graduating class – whose final semester has been disrupted by a different pandemic – were invited to share their meaningful Wolfpack stories and memories for possible inclusion.

Last fall, made possible by a transformational gift to the Think and Do the Extraordinary Campaign by alumnus Bill Henry, of Gastonia, and his family, work began to restore the Belltower and to complete it, at last, with a 55-bell carillon. A rededication is planned next spring.

Along with celebrating the past, present and future of the tower itself, the time capsule project nods back to earlier generations and bridges to newer ones.

“The reason finishing and preserving the Belltower is so cool, is that it’s probably the most important and iconic place on campus,” Chancellor Randy Woodson said. “It’s where we celebrate academic achievements and athletics victories, and it’s a meaningful site that ties together the university community. The Belltower tells people they’ve arrived at NC State. In so many ways, it is NC State.

“The story of how the tower came to be, the phases of that effort, and how many people have been involved with the tower over the years, is incredible.”

The Start of Something Extraordinary

The site where the 1921 crowd massed had been chosen based on the axis between the front porch of Holladay Hall and the front door of old Pullen Hall – which burned down decades ago between Primrose and Peele halls – as the entrance to campus; a longtime, popular carriageway passed in front of Holladay. Officials shifted their plans slightly north, though, off the northeast corner of those lines (which is marked by a granite survey marker) to give the tower greater prominence on a small hill.

The Belltower’s cornerstone reflects the strong Masonic influence on the early campus. It was dedicated with the rites of the North Carolina Grand Lodge of Masons, which also dedicated cornerstones for Holladay, Brooks and Patterson halls and the old campus YMCA. The Alpha Square, a chapter of Square and Compass, had been installed at the college in spring 1921.

The Belltower Dedication

Read more about the dedication in materials held by the Special Collections Research Center at NC State University Libraries: Alumni News (reprinting previous coverage) and Technician.

Many prominent members of the faculty and student body were members and Master Masons. Alumnus Vance Sykes, class of 1907, whose October 1918 letter urging the college community to honor alumni who had lost their lives to World War I inspired the drive to build the memorial tower, was a Mason in a Raleigh lodge.

The cornerstone itself bears Masonic insignia as well as an early version of the college seal. The architect of the tower got the insignia from a rubbing of the one on the Masonic Temple in New York City. The tradition of Masons providing cornerstones for institutional buildings throughout communities dates to the country’s origins. Typically, as with the Belltower, this first stone was placed in the building’s northeast corner.

“The jewels of the craft, the square, the level and the plumb were applied to the stone,” the Alumni News account details, “the wine, the corn and the oil poured over it, and the oblong copper box lowered into the cavity within the stone.”

The crowd that day had no idea about the twists and turns coming in the story of the Belltower, as the nation soon faced down a Great Depression and World War II. There would be many adjustments to the plan along the way. The stub of the tower remained wide open for a decade. The Works Progress Administration finally assured exterior completion in 1937, and a formal tower dedication took place in 1949 after the Shrine Room and other elements were completed. The original planning committee, which had persevered since January 1919, finally gave up on affording real bells and installed an electric carillon and speakers.

A Time Capsule – and Mystery – for New Generations

For several months, while construction continues, plans have been underway for the new Belltower time capsule. Research is being done into archival requirements and into similar projects undertaken recently by other universities including Indiana, Nebraska, Purdue and Cornell.

NC State’s time capsule will include both physical objects to represent colleges and units, as well as contributed photos and stories preserved through various media to tell an extraordinary modern story. Most of the collection process, to be overseen by a selection committee, will take place during the 2020-21 academic year.

As straightforward as the laying of the cornerstone itself seems to have been, there is a Belltower time capsule mystery.

It’s an intriguing legend that alumni Matt Robbins, the galvanizing force behind the Finish the Belltower campaign anchored by the class of 2010, and Mike Thompson, who also has conducted extensive research into the tower and the men it honors, stumbled into headlong more than a decade ago.

Thompson, who has a deep interest in genealogical, military and Masonic history, was serving as alumni adviser for Alpha Sigma Epsilon Engineering Fraternity. Studying the organization’s background at NC State, which dates to 1917, he ran across references to a Belltower time capsule that did not seem to match official accounts.

Piecing together oral history of alumni including Winfield “Buck” Morris, class of 1924, and other tantalizing tidbits from sources including Masonic records, he and Robbins became convinced that, the night before the official cornerstone event, a group of students snuck out in the darkness and buried a time capsule somewhere in the site’s northeast corner.

The pair continued to dig into the story, so to speak, analyzing 1921 photos that show mysteriously disturbed dirt near the ceremonial platform. The hollow cornerstone rests on a 10-foot-deep foundation that extends past the base; its outline is visible in cornerstones of the plinth, the raised platform constructed years later.

They have taken measurements to try and pin down a probable burial location.

“We don’t know if this time capsule will be found or what condition it might be in, but we are hopeful,” Thompson said.

The current Belltower project includes drainage-related repair and upgrades, along with the addition of heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and upgraded lighting, electrical, data and security systems. For those purposes, excavation of unevenly settled plinth paving and directional boring in the surrounding ground is getting underway.

The construction team is on the lookout for the legendary “student” time capsule.

Deterioration shouldn’t be a problem for the new one. The large stainless steel box, watertight and able to withstand a wide temperature range, will be secured inside the Belltower under stairs being built to link the Shrine Room to a new playing cabin below the new bells.

There are no plans to disturb the copper box in the cornerstone, which, after all, is part of the very structure. Most likely, the new capsule will include instructions for opening in 50 years, unveiling its chapter of university history to the eyes of another generation of the Wolfpack.


This story is part of an ongoing series highlighting the restoration and completion of the Memorial Belltower. Follow the progress of the project and learn more about the history of NC State’s Legend in Stone. 

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