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Bell Dedication and History

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"Often times, we hear about what’s new in Birmingham – buildings, streets, new technology," said Mayor Rackeline Hoff at the bell dedication on October 1, 2016. "But, today we’re here to recognize something from the past … an important part of Birmingham’s history, the Hill School Bell.  The placement of the Bell here between the historic Hunter and Allen House is most appropriate – it’s a significant addition in support of the valuable historic preservation of Birmingham."

Volunteers holding bannerMayor Hoff extended the thanks of the city commission to a wide range of supporters.  "This project is the result of more than five years of planning and is a wonderful example of what can be done through the combination of City input, citizen involvement and private investment in a community project."  In particular, she thanked 
  • Birmingham Public Schools for donating the Hill School Bell
  • Volunteers including Friends of the Museum, the Museum Board and all the other committee members who provided input on this project
  • Staff members of the Museum and City administration who spent many hours coordinating this project
  • Hundreds of individual citizens who made contributions or purchased commemorative brick pavers to raise needed funds
Woman in historic dress ringing bellFinally, Mayor Hoff pointed out the great supportive efforts of  the Rosso Family Foundation, which provided both project input and significant funding of $42,500 for this project alone.  The Rosso Family Foundation has helped fund other community projects and has provided additional financial grant support for other museum initiatives, such as the historic landscape survey and master planning for the museum's site.

Watch the video of the bell dedication produced by the Birmingham Area Cable Board. (All dedication photos by Carroll DeWeese)

Looking Back: the Hill School Bell's Story Begins

The Hill School was built in 1869, and was the pride of Birmingham schools at the time: well-built and large enough to educate the children of a thriving community. It took its name from the Reverend Samuel Hill of the Presbyterian Church, who had provided private education for Birmingham’s young people for many years, including famous residents like Martha Baldwin.  The school originally stood on the corner of Chester and Merrill Streets, where the Baldwin Apartments are now located. 

Hill SchoolThe Hill School at one time accommodated students from kindergarten through twelfth grade.  A large bell was cast in 1902 and placed in a cupola (bell tower) atop the building to call the students to class and dismiss them, becoming a part of every school day for all students and faculty.  But by 1912, the burgeoning population of Birmingham led to the need for a separate elementary school, and Barnum Elementary was built.  After that, the Hill School was used only as a high school until it closed in 1917.

The Birmingham Board of Education offices moved into the building and occupied it for many years, but ultimately needed better arrangements. Eventually, after new administrative offices were built, the old Hill School building became obsolete.  In 1969—100 years after it was built—the building was demolished.  School administrators saved the bell, however, and displayed it in their new building.  But in 2007, the bell had to find a new home again.  It was donated to the Birmingham  Museum (formerly Birmingham Historical Museum & Park), but stored off site.  In August, 2010, the bell was moved to the museum lobby.

The Second Phase of the Bell's Story:  "Let the Hill School Bell Ring Out Again!"  Fundraising Initiative

Two children ringing bellThe bell rested for a time at the museum.  But interest in its final resting place continued, and in 2011, meetings were held with the Museum Board, Friends of the Birmingham Museum, members of the public and the school board to discuss an outdoor installment that would allow the public to enjoy the bell, while protecting it from the elements and providing lighting and security.  A generous grant from the Rosso Family Foundation allowed the museum to engage an architect to create the final plans, which were complete in 2013. The final design is a gazebo-like structure that was inspired by the original cupola from the Hill School roof.  It will be installed in the plaza area between the Allen House and Hunter Houses at the museum, so that passers-by can see and appreciate this historic piece of Birmingham’s past.  It will also commemorate our local school heritage and recognize superintendents and others who have contributed to its preservation.  And the bell will be specially installed so that museum visitors will be able to ring it.  Download a .wav file to hear the bell or add to your ringtones!

Bell structure diagramThe project was estimated at $40,000 to prepare the site and build the structure.  The materials are historic in character but long-lasting and low maintenance.  A further grant for $20,000 was received from the Rosso Family Foundation as matching funds to help the Friends of the Birmingham Museum and Museum Board's final fundraising campaign, which was only about $5,000 short by the end of 2015.  The Rosso Family Foundation stepped up to the plate to provide the final funding to take the project out to bid.  When project construction estimates came in, costs had increased.  The final project cost was $55,000, and was completed in September, 2016.

Many Hands Make Light Work

LetterThe Hill School bell project has brought together the best of Birmingham. So many people in the community have fond memories and great stories about the Hill School, and wholeheartedly lent their support to the project.

Support included funds donated and raised with the Friends of the Birmingham Museum's commemorative paver program, grant funding from the Rosso Family Foundation, and funds contributed by the Board of Education.  But support takes many forms, and included public input contributed to the project, the many hours of volunteer assistance throughout the five years of fundraising and event planning, and professional expertise that was given to guide the project.

A former student of the Hill School, Jan E.,  shared the sentiments of many with a hand written note about Birmingham's schools of the past, and her hopes for the bell's future. We are so delighted that we can assure Jan and all of Birmingham that the bell now has a permanent home at the museum and it will surely ring out often now and into the future!