Angelo Tirado remembers riding his bike as a teenager with friends around the old John B. Stetson Hat Company factory on 4th and Cadwallader streets in 1973.
“We used to call it ‘The Castle,’” said Tirado, a security officer at Tyler School of Art and Architecture. “Years later, we saw there was no more people going in and out of the building because they shut it down or something, but I remember the bell, I remember there was a loud bell.”
Almost half a century later, Temple Contemporary, an art gallery at Tyler School of Art and Architecture, acquired the Stetson Bell and is now hosting the Stetson Bell Concert series. The bell is on display at the gallery this semester and Philadelphia artists and Boyer College of Music and Dance students, faculty and alumni are invited to play it on Wednesday afternoons for public concerts.
The bell had hung in the factory since 1892 and rung to 5,000 hat workers each day, until it collapsed due to an arson fire on Sept. 4, 1980, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
It was then stored at the now-closed Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent until Robert Blackson brought his class to the museum’s repository last year.
“The bell was just sitting on the floor, all dusty and stuff, and it was just like a monument,” said Blackson, director of exhibitions and public programs at Temple Contemporary.
He then asked the museum staff about the background of the bell and began reflecting on how it could be applied to history, music, and experimentation in learning.
“I just kept thinking about, is there a way that this bell that hasn’t been heard in 40 years, could be heard again, but not just sort of rung, but sort of applied the ways in which we can consider it as an educational tool,’” Blackson added.
The series started on Oct. 9 and has featured local artists like Pete Angevine and Taji Nahl. Each artist is encouraged to play the bell in their own style. Some performers have brought spoken word pieces, keyboards, and synthesizers to the performances, said Sarah Biemiller, associate director of Temple Contemporary.
Creating a concert series with the bell started by wanting people to resonate deeper with it, she added.
“The bell has obviously had an impact on many different generations, and we thought, well, what better way to sort of have it remain contemporary and hold such history, but it can also be a contemporary function as well,” she said.
Lucas Conant, a first-year percussion performance student and Alyssa Resh, a 2019 masters of percussion performance alumna, were the selected artists for the Nov. 13 concert.
Resh said that having the chance to play the bell allows her to feel connected with Philadelphia’s history.
“I would really love for people to enjoy the sound and sit here as a community, sit here as a bunch of strangers and get lost in what’s happening and in the unity of like the bell,” she added. “I think that’ll speak to the history of it.”
The two brought various mallets, bells, and chimes to play with the bell in order to produce interesting sounds for audience members, Conant said. After their performance, attendees were able to touch, hit, and ring the bell in whichever way they wanted.
Kate Minlionica, a junior Asian studies major, attended the performance after hearing the bell ringing through the school’s hallways and said she enjoyed the chance to hear bell music.
“It’s a piece of history, and it’s nice they can use it for modern art,” Minlionica said.
The concert series will have three more performances this year. The bell will then be taken down on Dec. 13 and returned to the Philadelphia History Museum.
“We used to hear that ring, and it’s here now in the same building that I’m working in,” Tirado said. “It’s really amazing just to see that they saved the bell.”