PROVIDENCE — They clang, they clash, they roar. Their clamorous peals can pierce a deep sleep or puncture a conversation.
The shrill ring of the bells of Grace Episcopal Church has shaken downtown Providence for generations, a clarion reminder of a historical landmark that is no less striking than the neo-Gothic structure’s towering brick steeple.
So whenever complaints about the clangor filter back to the church, they are heard, but not necessarily heeded.
“We say, ‘I’m sorry the bells disturb you; they’ve been ringing here in this neighborhood for over 150 years,’ ” said the Rev. Jonathan Huyck, rector of the church. “Essentially, the bells were here first.”
But Huyck and the church are hardly tone deaf to the auditory needs of their neighbors. This is clear from a compromise that Grace Episcopal Church has made with a boutique hotel that stands smack dab in the bells’ sonic ground zero, just across narrow Mathewson Street. Two years ago, at the rector’s request, the bell’s master grudgingly cut back the chiming from four times an hour to twice: on the hour and half past.
“In my mind it’s a huge sacrifice,” said Mark Johnson, organist and choirmaster at the church for more than 20 years. “It’s an extremely generous gesture, one which I have objected to very strenuously.”
It is a gesture they appreciate at Hotel Providence, said Tricia Carter, marketing manager for the 80-room establishment in the heart of the city’s arts and theater district. She said that staff “try to use the angle that it’s this charming piece of downtown and the history.”
Sometimes that is not enough to soothe the ears of guests in the premier suite that overlooks the church or al fresco diners in the summer or people using the meeting rooms.
“It isn’t a pleasant, pastoral kind of sound; it’s kind of clangy,” Carter said. “You can’t have a conversation when they’re going off.”
Without a compromise, the hotel would have little recourse. Church bells and clock towers are generally exempt from regulation in noise laws, such as those in Maine, where an innkeeper has tried unsuccessfully to get Bath to tone down the peals of its clock tower.
According to Carter, chimes have been sounding continually at Grace Episcopal Church since Easter Day, March 31, 1861, with only two exceptions, during renovations in 1940 and 1989. They ring from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m., Johnson said, but play longer melodies to mark the start and end of the workday, church services, on Sunday, and special events. Once played manually, the bells now ring on a computerized system, on which Johnson has recorded 500 hymns.
High over the street in the steeple, he recently improvised a melody to demonstrate how the bells are played. He pumped a set of wooden handles the size of bowling pins, creating the distinctive clang.
Bells are not created to knell identically, as Edgar Allan Poe captured in his poem, “The Bells.” The tintinnabulation of Grace Episcopal Church was not meant to be mellow, said Johnson. The casters were going for a piercing sound, he said, because back in the day the bell doubled as time-keeper for the city. “It’s not that they were attempting to be super smooth and failed.”
If they were going for piercing, to read some reviews of Hotel Providence, the casters succeeded.
“What a way to start the morning.”
“It was enough to drive a person insane.”
“It was hard to enjoy my meal!”
A staff member who did not want to be identified concurred as the bells tolled. “I wish it would fall into the ground,” said the staffer, gazing at the tower as the bells struck the melody of a hymn on a recent Sunday.
To be fair, some guests who complain about noise mention not the bells but the jazz band that plays in the courtyard on Friday nights during warmer weather. And, as a recent stay confirmed, the chiming is not loud enough to wake a deep sleeper in rooms that face away from the church. And there are some who appreciate the auditory constant. Count Johnson, whose apartment is inside the church, among them.
“I’ve lived with the bells for 24 years, and I love them,” he said. “To me it just makes me feel that I am whole.”