Why Is the Baker Bell Tower All Wrapped Up in Itself?

The scrim around the scaffold is practical and gives people a nice view during repairs.

For more than 80 years, Dartmouth’s Baker Library Bell Tower has been a beacon, rising from the Green, orienting the directionally challenged, and gently lighting the night sky. For the first time since it was constructed in 1928, the landmark is getting some necessary repairs: a new roof, modern controls for the clock, a repaired weathervane, and a fully renovated tower room.

To do all that on a tall building, workers need scaffolding. No surprise there. Less predictable, perhaps, is the full-size photograph of the tower wrapped around the scaffolding like a blanket.

The scrim, says Patrick O’Hern, program manager for Facilities Operations and Management, hides the construction, keeps dirt and dust inside the site, and affords workers some protection against the wind. And, O’Hern says, “It makes it possible for people who are just getting back to campus to still ‘see,’ in a sense, the tower they’re used to seeing there.”  

Carl Jay, who directs historic preservation for the Boston-based contractor, Shawmut Design and Construction, says most projects like this require some sort of barrier—often black or green—which, he says, can be visually jarring. “It looks really out of place, and makes the site lose its appeal.”

Appealing photographs, Jay says, send a more inviting message: “This is a building we really care about enough to maintain carefully, with respect to its historic value.”

It wasn’t simply a matter of fabricating a giant slipcover for the tower. To make the scrim, Shawmut’s photographers had to produce extremely high-resolution images and convert them into many panels to fit the scaffolding snugly.

The Baker Bell Tower is not the only treasured landmark to wear a fetching image of itself during reconstruction. Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the U.S. Supreme Court were similarly enshrouded. Behind Dartmouth’s scrim, construction is moving along nicely, O’Hern says, on budget and on time, with completion expected by homecoming weekend Oct. 28 and 29.

More good news: The weathervane, which planners thought had deteriorated at the base, turns out to have withstood the elements much better than previously thought, so instead of being replaced, it will be refurbished and reinstalled.