When I start writing a blog, I go into it usually with no prior true knowledge. This allows me to have a fresh look at the subject I am going to write about. The Bell Tower Green is one such subject. I would be telling a lie if I said I didn’t know anything about it! Seriously, one of the first things I ever heard was that it was going to be like a small Central Park in New York City. There have also been plenty of articles about this park and how it is funded through donations. What I wanted to know was some of the back story… like way back in the day. Let’s begin with Maxwell Chambers.
Maxwell Chambers 1780-1855
The family of Salisbury native, Maxwell Chambers, gave two city blocks to the First Presbyterian Church in Salisbury in 1855. One of the conditions was that Chambers’ family and previously passed relatives that were already buried on the property would remain there. An interesting rumor is that Chambers also had his horse buried with the family as well. The Greek Revival Style Session House, which was built over the grave site in 1855 after the passing of Chambers, was used for church meetings and Sunday School for children. The Session Building sits on a 30x30 parcel of land which is located on the corner of Jackson and Innes Street and remains under the care of the First Presbyterian Church for maintenance of the building and property because it is a sacred burial ground. The ten graves are behind the stone walls and can be seen through a locked gate on the east side of the building.
First Presbyterian Church
Originally on the property in 1826, the first church was built, and in 1892 a second church was built on the same property, in a Romanesque Style, and was designed by Charles Webber from Philadelphia. Webber was known for his designs and he had built over 500 other churches as well.
In discussing the church and design with my fiancé I showed him a picture of the church and found out as a child he attended kindergarten at that same church. He remembers the building well and I can see why! The pictures I am sure do not do it justice.
According to Archie Tucker, Maintenance Supervisor for First Presbyterian and a long-time family friend, the second church had a lot of termite damage so the church decided to rebuild on the property where it sits today on the corner of Innes Street and West Fisher Street. The only remaining item from the second church is a beautiful circular stained-glass window that is located on the building facing the water fountain at the church.
Speaking about the present church, Archie shared with me that the architect, John Ramsay, designed the building and also the Rowan County Public Library, which I found to be an interesting fact. Ramsay also designed multiple homes in Rowan County that are still lived in to this day. The church had its first service in the new building on Easter Sunday, April 6, 1969. The older church was razed in 1971 and the only thing left standing was the Bell Tower which served as the entrance into the original second church. The Bell Tower then became a focal point in Salisbury for celebrations over the years.
Bell Tower Green
As the years passed, many things changed on the remaining property after the second church was torn down. A park was constructed around the Bell Tower with a gazebo, a bank building was built which included a large parking lot, and there was the Wrenn House, or as some of us may also recall, it was Miss Lucy’s. The Rowan Salisbury Farmer’s Market even used the property for several years before getting their new home this past year.
I was able to catch up with Jason Walser who is the Executive Director for the Blanche and Julian Robertson Family Foundation. Jason has worked for them for 5 years and prior to that was with the Three River Land Trust for 16 years. Jason is a very busy person and I was excited to sit down with him and hear about the progress with Bell Tower Green.
Walser’s enthusiasm was apparent from the beginning of our conversation. He gave me a lot of back information such as after 150 years the church was looking to sale the property. Finding someone was the issue. The Blanche and Julian Robertson Family Foundation became involved, and by doing so, found others such as Bill and Nancy Stanback, Fred and Alice Stanback, and multiple other donors that were community minded that wanted to become involved in the project. A non-profit group was formed and named the Bell Tower Green, Inc. in the year of 2016.
Bell Tower Green knew they wanted to have a place for all in Rowan County and “all walks of life” to enjoy so the plan for the park began to develop for the 3.6 acres of land. According to Jason, “where else are you going to find such a large area of land in the middle of the city?”
They knew they wanted to have lots trees, flowers and grassy areas, a water feature, a stage, and of course restrooms. Hopefully there will be food trucks around as well. The Wrenn House that actually used to be the Female Academy way back in the day is being renovated and will be a restaurant.
Jason said they plan to have lots of activities for families, including storytelling for children, and areas where they can run and play. The stage will give us live performances which will be a welcomed event after the year we have had with the first being the Salisbury Symphony. The more he talked the more excited Jason became and the more excited and interested I became about the Bell Tower Green.
The Wrenn House will become a great place to gather for meals and drinks. There will also be an outdoor seating area at the restaurant so you can enjoy a glass of wine on the patio while you watch your kids play! I’m excited to be one of the first customers there and can’t wait for the new restaurateur to be announced in the coming days!
So many came together in Rowan County to make this park become a reality. As I am chatting with Walser he told me that they had planned for the park to open sooner than it did. “Weather has hampered work, COVID caused delays with getting workers… all in all 2020 was a rough year”. We all are aware we have had a lot of rain in both 2020 and so far in 2021. As of right now the park is slated to open officially on June 30 this summer. A grand opening for the park is slated for a later date.
Walser explained there have been so many working together to make this a reality. The City of Salisbury, Rowan County Government, and the State of North Carolina have contributed in so many ways. “I don’t know of another project that has brought this many together. This park should be a sense of pride where we can all come together! We think it’s important”, and I totally agree.
The Bell Tower
The Bell Tower structure has been restored inside by Alfred Wilson to give us many more years of enjoyment. The tower had suffered damage over the years due to weather, water damage, and insect damage. Now the structure has been reinforced all the way around and the bell can be rung loud and clear for all to hear.
I found out that the Bell Tower and the second First Presbyterian Church are sentimental to Walser because his parents, Albert F. Walser and Sue Carter Walser, were married there on December 21, 1963. I asked if they planned to renew their vows once the park was opened and sadly they have both passed away. However, there is a first wedding already in the plans for the Bell Tower after the park opens and I’m sure many more will be held there as well. If you are interested in reserving the Bell Tower for a wedding, get in touch with Vivian Koontz, Event Coordinator with the City of Salisbury, at 704-638-5294.
As is expected with an endeavor of this nature, community involvement is necessary. The Bell Tower Green is still seeking donations and have stated “no donation is too small.” You can visit their website at www.belltowergreen.com for all the updates on this community project and to donate.
Now I make it a part of every trip to town to take time to drive around the block and see the progress being made towards the opening of the Bell Tower Green. I’ve noticed magnolia trees in the ground now and see others just waiting to take root in the rich soil. If you haven’t given yourself a moment to take a drive around or walk around please do so soon! It’s changing daily and soon we will all be able to say we watched it grow literally from the ground up!