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Columbia Association plans to bring back lakefront bells

Remember the bell tower on the downtown Columbia lakefront? It could be making a comeback

Since the Downtown Columbia Plan was passed in 2010, there have been a lot of improvements and additions made to Columbia's Town Center.

A Whole Foods has opened in the Rouse Company building; leasing has begun for the first new apartment complex built under the plan; construction has begun on the first office building in downtown in more than 15 years; and a unique, Columbia Association-run wellness facility is scheduled to open in December. And that's all just this year.

But Columbia's gains may be overshadowing the loss of one of Columbia's few landmarks: the lakefront bell tower, which was taken down in 2010 because of structural damage to the wood.

That will soon change, however, as CA is planning to invest $75,000 in capital funds that could lead to the construction of a new tower, or at the very least will ensure that the 14 cast bronze carillon bells, currently in storage, that once populated the tower are repurposed.

"The tower was a memorable landmark in Columbia. It was visually impressive and many Columbians remember fondly the sound of the bells," said Jan Clark, CA's landscape service managers, in a memo to the CA Board of Directors last week.

At the time the tower was dismantled, CA said it intended to eventually rebuild the tower or reuse the bells in some fashion.

In the memo, Clark updated the board on the status of plans to reintroduce the bells, which will coincide with Columbia's 50th birthday celebration scheduled for 2017. Last year, the board voted to commit the seed money for the project, a move that needs to be confirmed this spring during the approval of the fiscal year 2016 budget.

If approved, CA would then hire a consultant to draft design concepts for a tower, which would be presented to the board for approval in mid- to late-2015.

She said construction funds would need to be approved in fiscal year 2017, which will be passed prior to May 1, 2016. She said that construction of a tower, even a smaller one, would require "significant capital funds."

The tower was erected on a pier on Lake Kittamaqundi in the 1960s, although the 14 carillon bells were not added until the late 1970s. Prior to it being a bell tower, the 50-foot wooden edifice was a flag pole displaying the banners of the United States, Maryland, Howard County and Columbia.

In 1977, at Columbia's 10th birthday celebration, the Rouse Company installed the bells as a gift to the community. For more than 30 years, the bells tolled every 15 minutes, and were controlled by the company electronically in its nearby headquarters.

Barbara Kellner, executive director of the Columbia Archives, said the tower is one of few landmarks for the young, planned community.

"I think it's fair to say it was an integral part of the lakefront," she said. "It was this kind of guiding light that told you where the center of the city is, and [now] we don't really have that at all."

She added that the tower, and specifically the bells, have great historical significance.

"They marked an important occasion for Columbia when they were first put up," she said. "It seems the right thing that we should use these bells and rededicate them."

Barb Nicklas, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Partnership and a former Rouse Company employee, said the reintroduction of the bells "fits perfectly with the direction of downtown Columbia."

"I love the idea and the fact that they are bringing them back; really embracing the icons and landmarks that make Columbia so special," she said.

Kellner agrees. She added that reintroducing the bells fits into the theme of the 50th birthday celebration.

"The celebration of the 50th is going to be all about appreciating the past but sort of reaching out to the future, and reimagining that original vision," she said. "The bells are a nice representation of that."

Clark said it is very early on in the process, but that Kennedy Gardens, located on the other side of the lake, could be considered as an alternate location as opposed to the pier.

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