Our Bell has a Story to Tell

Today’s blog was guest written by Admissions Director, Stacey Hickam.

Today we live in the shadow of a pandemic that we hoped was nearly over, until we were harshly reminded that it wasn’t.  This influenced the CPLS administration to select “RESILIENCE” to be our collective Word-for-the-Year.  How can we prepare our students to be adaptable and rise above challenges instead of being overwhelmed by them?   

Looking to the past at examples in history is an excellent start to recognizing and modeling resiliency in our own lives. Few things around our school exemplify this word more than our beloved bell which is prominently displayed on the front lawn.   

Have you ever stood in line in front of Cair Paravel Latin School on the first day of school waiting your turn for a photo in front of the bell?  Parents and students often participate in this tradition without understanding its significance.  So, what’s so special about this bell? 

The bell has weathered the elements for almost 150 years and here is what we know about its history: 

1875: A post-Civil War era school was first built on our current site.  It featured a large steeple tower, presumably built to house a bell which would be rung to draw students from the area to school at the start of each day.  

Clay Elementary shown here in 1879.

1882: The bell was produced by the foundry Meneely & Co in West Troy, NY (renamed Watervliet). Ledgers show that they fulfilled at least 800 orders for schools all over the world and the bells ranged in size from 20-2000 pounds. 

1888: The original school building burned to the ground leaving a small stone slab and the bell with its iron yoke unharmed. 

1926: Construction was completed for Clay Elementary School which was designed by nationally recognized architects Thomas Williamson and Ted Greist to reflect the Gothic-Tudor architectural style from the Renaissance period.    

1927: The bell, still attached to its original yoke, was installed in front of Clay Elementary on top of the small slab left from the original building.  

This plaque, mounted to a concrete base, still rests in front of the bell wall.

1954: Clay Elementary integrated and enrolled its first African-American students after the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.   

1975: Clay Elementary closed its doors and the building sat vacant until the Stormont Vail School of Nursing occupied it for a few years.   

1980: Cair Paravel is founded and began to enroll elementary age students.   

1985:  Cair Paravel purchased the former Clay Elementary building.  The bell was eventually discovered, sitting on the dirt floor of the basement.  It was cleaned and placed back in front of the school.

1987:  Cair Paravel merged with Topeka Latin School.   

1995: A brick base was constructed to raise the bell for more prominence.   

The bell before and after the brick base was constructed to display it.

The bell continues to be a timeless symbol. For decades CPLS students have posed with the bell on the first and last days of each school year.  Alumni return to the bell for photos during their class reunions.  Each year more and more second-generation students pose where their own parents posed in the early days of Cair Paravel.  It feels like “our bell”, but it seems more accurate to consider CPLS merely the current stewards of an authentic piece of Topeka history.  This bell belongs to the ages.   

The reunion of the Class of 2011 this summer included the iconic photo with the school bell.

More Fun Facts: 

  • Meneely bells rang for President Franklin Roosevelt’s and President John Kennedy’s funerals and also for President Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration.   
  • The replacement for the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is a Meneely bell.   
  • A Meneely bell sits at West Point Military Academy and also at the Metropolitan Life building in New York City.   
  • The Meneely company closed in 1952 because of metal shortages and the increasing popularity of electronic bells and chimes.