Rock around the clock: the 10 greatest university clock towers…. ever!

Everyone loves a ranking. And a clock tower. Paul Greatrix counts down the world's finest campus clock towers.

Everyone loves a university clock tower. With their seemingly infinite variety of heights, styles, clock faces and chimes there is so much to enjoy in looking and listening to them and they can be a real centrepiece for a campus. In short, there’s nothing not to like.

And then they also tell you the time. Honestly, there really is so much to say in their favour which space precludes me listing here. I would though also like to highlight this lovely article about the history of Canadian University clock towers recently shared by David Kernohan.

So, given all these multi-faceted wonders it seemed about time we had a ranking of these towering marvels. There is an extremely complicated methodology behind all of this covering every aspect of clock tower specifications – it’s not just about height, but quality, clock face, timekeeping, chime tune and bong volume. Plus history and interesting stories. All pretty far from straightforward. So here’s your top 10 of the best university clock towers. Ever!

10.  Ladner Clock Tower, University of British Columbia

As the brief history of Canadian clock towers notes when the clock tower was built in 1967 the students were very much against with one writing in the student newspaper that it was:

“a functional, social and visual irrelevancy” and complained of “the monotonous and inconsequential tolling of the hours, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, century after century” that the clock would bring to the campus.

Like the Sather tower below this one originally contained a carillon but that has since been replaced by an electronic alternative.

Furthermore:

Music broadcast from the tower has become a traditional part of school ceremonies, but students have never treated the landmark with much reverence. The Ubyssey has depicted it draped with a condom, and in 2014, UBC engineers pulled off a prank that resulted in a red Volkswagen­­ Beetle miraculously appearing atop the concrete spire.

Everyone loves a car on top of a university building (see for example this story from a while back featuring an Austin Seven).

9.  Trent Building Clock Tower, University of Nottingham

Well, it had to be there, didn’t it?

8.  Old Arts Building, University of Auckland

It’s a bit of a classic this one, a 54m tower apparently inspired by the famous Tom Tower of Christ Church, Oxford and with an octagonal interior which is vaulted and galleried with a mosaic floor and piers. There is even an exciting video about its history

7.  Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

It’s big, it’s newish and it is very stylish Art Deco. And now it is part of the University’s logo. Good work clock tower.

6.  Sather Tower, UC Berkeley

This marvellous tower in California, in addition to telling the time, houses a carillon which provides a tuneful accompaniment to campus activities at various times of day. It’s 94m tall and even more excitingly has a lift up to an observation deck.

5. Healy Clock Tower, Georgetown University

At 61m the tower is a real landmark for Georgetown. Beyond its impressive height and styling there is a strong university tradition of stealing the hands of the clock and they have been regularly pinched by students:

Historically, students would steal the hands and mail them to the person they wished to visit the campus, most notably sent to the Vatican, where they were blessed by Pope John Paul II and then returned to the university. The hands were stolen once again during the evening between April 29 and April 30, 2012, and supposedly sent to Barack Obama but the hands ended up lost in the mail.

Dean M. Carignan (SFS ’91) has written of his stealing the clock hands during his freshman year. On April 1, 1988, Carignan and a fellow student accessed the clock through “a metal plate set into the roof at the base of the clocktower.” Eventually tracked down by campus security, Carignan and his Georgetown accomplice were sentenced by a university discipline panel to “an $800 fine, a 40-hour work sanction, [and] a year of probation.”

The writer Joseph Bottum has also published an account of stealing the clock hands. In the Fall of 1977, Bottum joined Stan DeTurris, Dave Barry, and Pat Conway (all freshmen in the class of ’81) to climb through a trap door on the north peak of Healy, above Gaston Hall, and steal the hands from the east face of the clock, returning them at the end of the school year to the university president, Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J. The next year, Bottum writes, he and DeTurris found another way into the attics of Healy Hall, crawling through the ducts above Riggs Library to steal the minute hands from both the east and west clock faces.

4.  Rajabai Tower, Mumbai University

85m tall and designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott with more than an echo of the clocktower of the Palace of Westminster this really is a hugely impressive university clock tower

3.  McGraw Tower, Cornell University

The McGraw Tower at Cornell University in Ithaca is 53 meters tall and really rather impressive. It’s major claim to university history is that back in 1997 someone managed to place a hollowed-out pumpkin on top of the McGraw Tower spire. Apparently the rest is history, and still something of a mystery.

2.  Clock Towers and more, Moscow State University

Just the coolest building. With an extra clock tower too. And a barometer and a thermometer on each tower. Smart.

Moscow State University. Also has big clock towers.

1. The Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower, University of Birmingham

Also known as Old Joe, at 100m tall, it is the world’s tallest freestanding clock tower. Its design is based on the Torree del Mangia campanile in Siena and believed by many to have been the inspiration for the tower of Isengard in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Excitingly, the tower has also got its own Twitter account @oldjoeclock too. [Editor notes: you can pay £50 to change the colour of the clock faces for a day – and why would you not?]

Just outside the placings we have honourable mentions for the Purdue Bell Tower, the University of Nottingham Malaysia (a lovely interpretation of the Trent Building clock tower in the UK), the splendid red Victoria Clock Tower at Liverpool University, the Trinity College Cambridge clock tower from 1610 and, of course, the Monsters U tower from whenever.

They even have a great clock tower at Monsters U

So, there you have it, plenty to argue with about that latest essential ranking.

6 responses to “Rock around the clock: the 10 greatest university clock towers…. ever!

  1. Old Joe, definitely number 1, add to the story that Chamberlain insisted on leaving a gap in the semi-cirle on the basis that someone, some day, would fill it (now the Bramall Concert Hall)., but nobody would ever build them a clock tower!

  2. Where’s the mention of the clock tower in the image at the head of this story? That’s the commanding and unmistakable Ormond College, University of Melbourne. Podium finish for sure.

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