What’s 100 Feet Tall, 129 Years Old & Sings Twice A Day? The Allegheny County Courthouse Tower

Jul 7, 2017

It’s easy to keep track of time from most streets downtown: the Allegheny County Courthouse chimes play every 15 minutes, as well as strike the hour; twice a day they sing.

“Noon and five,” said Jim Reardon, the county’s director of facilities management. “It counts off whatever hour it has to be ... and then we play a particular song, whichever song is picked for that day.”

Floating down from the great height of the courthouse’s 100-foot tower, the chimes can be deceiving: they sound mysterious, weighted with dignity. But there are neither chimes nor bells in the courthouse tower, and there never have been.

“This is the carillon system,” said Reardon, pulling out a key to unlock an unassuming cabinet on the courthouse’s second floor. Inside sat the Quadrabell II-D Solid State Digital, a squat tan box with a slot for SD cards and a face like a late 1990s jukebox. “There you go.”

On June 20, 1967 the Carillon War Memorial Committee dedicated the cabinet and its music to “all those men and women of Allegheny County who died in defense of their Country in all our Nation’s Wars.”

“The old system worked just like the old player pianos,” explained Reardon. “It had scrolls, you had to feed them in there and it had the little holes and it actually played that way.”

Allegheny County electrician Mike Hoffman holds a box containing one of the old player piano-style scrolls used by the previous carillon system.
Credit Margaret J. Krauss / 90.5 WESA

Now, it’s all electronic. The songs come loaded on SD cards that Reardon and another electrician, Mike Hoffman, put into the NovaBell Generation 4 and schedule for the proper occasions. Wedding, popular, patriot, ethnic 1, ethnic 2, ethnic 3—compared to the paper rolls of yesteryear, the categories seem endless.

“Almost like an iPlayer,” said Reardon.

The songs are chosen to mark holidays and special events, and otherwise change about every two weeks, a fact some courthouse employees are well aware of.

As Reardon pointed out the playlist for Veterans Day, a man stuck his head out of his office. “Rolling Stones, Jimmy, we’re counting on you.”

Reardon laughed, “See?”

Making the playlist is a collaborative effort between Reardon, his team and the county executive’s office. But he’s been known to take the occasional request.

“The Star Wars one was [last-minute],” he said. “I wasn’t even thinking about it and someone said, ‘Hey, you know, Star Wars is coming out, can you put that one on there?’ I said yeah.”

The opening tones of that trumpet fanfare blasted from eight 60-pound speakers, each 4 feet wide, hung at the top of the courthouse tower.

“Want to go up?” asked Reardon.

From a small room on the fifth floor, we climbed first one flight, then another, up through the tower’s interior, coming to a halt about a third of the way up.

“We’ll have to stop here, but if you come right here, you can see,” Reardon said. He pointed to a series of extension ladders, running all the way up through the narrow shaft to the building’s sound and light systems.

“It can be really loud,” Reardon said, referring to the speaker array. “We probably only have it up about 60 or 70 percent right now.”

Playing at full capacity in 1967, the carillon irked a state Supreme Court justice whose office in the City County Building was reliably rattled by the new addition to the courthouse.

A month after its installation, Justice Michael A. Musmanno penned a letter to John M. Appel, director of property and supplies.

“The tones of the bells are clear and resonant,” Musmanno began. “My only question is whether we do not get that tuneful, tintinnabulating tonality too often. I am very fond of chocolate cake, but if I were required to eat it three times a day, I would soon be lobbying for a total embargo of the cacao bean.”

In his reply, Appel thanked Justice Musmanno for his “candy-coated” criticism and said he’d look into the matter.

These days, it’s just nice to be able to mark the seasons from the courthouse, said Reardon.

“Christmas has always been big in Pittsburgh, you know...the Fourth of July, fireworks, the Veterans Day parade,” he said. “Pittsburgh’s traditional, they just they celebrate their traditions. And music’s a big part of that.”