For those from North Carolina, whether you love or hate North Carolina State University, the Memorial Belltower is perhaps one of the most iconic symbols across the state. As an alumnus myself, I have joined tens of thousands of other graduates posing in front of the stately landmark. Even the official class rings spend the night in the tower before commencement ceremonies the next day. But what most people don’t realize is that it was constructed as a tribute to the students and alumni that lost their lives fighting in World War I.
Today, the 115-foot monument, which began construction in 1921, is a symbol of the university and a rallying point for the campus community. The history of the Belltower mirrors the turbulence of the 20th century. Work commenced quickly after the cornerstone was laid in 1921 with 10 foot sections added in 1924, 1925 and 1926. But construction was halted for extended periods during the Great Depression and again during World War II. Finishing touches, including the chimes, shrine room and memorial plaque were completed in the late 1940s and a formal dedication was held on Nov. 11, 1949.
Constructed at a cost of more than $150,000, the tower is made of 1,400 tons of granite set on a 700-ton concrete base. Its blending of Romanesque features and Gothic verticality are reminiscent of the towers at West Point.
North Carolina’s main U.S. World War I Centennial Commission observance – and the only one of 100 worldwide events held on a college campus – took place at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, May 1 at the Memorial Tower.
The plaza of the Belltower was decorated by thousands of real and artificial red poppies, the internationally recognized symbol of remembrance, a tradition that sprouted from the John McCrae poem “In Flanders Field.”
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
The 40-minute ceremony included a singing of the national anthem, an invocation, a 21-gun salute and a flyover of F-15 fighters from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro
A total of 34 NC State students and alumni died in the conflict, and their names, along with another that represents all who served, are engraved in the ground-level chapel of the Belltower. Tuesday’s ceremony included the laying of a wreath at the base of the tower and “Taps” in their memory.
For more information and stories about NC State’s role in World War I and how it transformed this iconic college campus, visit here.
For more information about North Carolina in WWI, visit here.