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Chimes Tower, Death Valley Ranch

Chimes Tower, Kurt Repanshek photo
Kurt Repanshek
Sunday, January 11, 2009

Visit Death Valley Ranch, home of Scotty's Castle, in Death Valley National Park and your eye can't help but be drawn to Chimes Tower. When construction got under way in November 1928, Albert Johnson already had purchased a 16-tone carillon chime to be installed in the tower.

According to National Park Service records, in April 1930 Johnson purchased nine additional tones and an automatic roll player for the tower. The first set of chimes was installed that year, and a second set was installed in 1946.

According to an historic evaluation of the tower by the Park Service:

The Chimes Tower was originally conceived by Johnson as an element of the Death Valley Ranch complex that could either be incorporated as part of the Barn or stand in isolation on the hill to the west of the Main House. In 1927 Johnson instructed MacNeilledge to prepare drawings for either option. Johnson first thought that the sound of the chimes would be better from the stable and decided to place it there. Johnson then purchased a 16-tone chimes system and an automatic roll player from the J.C. Deagan Inc., in Chicago, Illinois.

For reasons unknown, Johnson changed his mind and relocated the tower to its alternate location. Construction began in November 1928 and by March 1929 the basic four-story structure was completed. The brown and beige stucco exterior treatment and band-sawed "antiqued" wood trim echo the basic styling motif of most of the previous structures and remain faithful to the "Spanish Mediterranean" design scheme that MacNeilledge had established. Several new stylistic elements, however, were introduced since the first designs of the tower by MacMeilledge. In 1927. The Medieval elements of Romanesque columns along the entry porch, the machicolation supporting the encircling stairway, false rustication of the base and the coat of arms centered within the Art Deco tile roof all point to a "Medieval" design sensibility that coincided with Johnson's hiring of a new architect, Martin de Dubovay, in 1928, as a draftsman in MacNeilledge's studio.

This is approximately the same time that the decision to relocate the tower to its "west hill" location was made and might have also been related to the hiring of the new architect. The new plans called for a fully landscaped area to be known as the "Plateau." It would extend from the roofline of the Power House to the east and completely wrap around the Tower's terrace to the west. The terrace and the paths leading to it were to be covered with flagstone. Low concrete walls north and south of the terrace running from the roofline of the Power House were to be bordered with plantings.

In 1930, Johnson purchased an additional nine chimes and an automatic roll player. Installation of the twenty-five tone carillon by the manufacturer was dependent upon the completion of the Power House, the installation of the diesel generator and the electricity it would provide. By November 1930 the first diesel
generator was operational and installation of the chimes closely followed. With the additional purchase of the "Westminster Chiming Device" the chimes sounded out the quarter hour automatically.

In 1941, Johnson purchased a second-hand "harmonic" chimes system. This, like the previous system, could be played by an automatic roll player and a keyboard in the mechanism room of the tower. It differed from what he had, in that it could play more than a single note at a time. Since 1946, when the new system was installed, a smaller remote keyboard in the lower music room has not been equipped to play it. The individual chimes range in size from approximately 12' to 47" in length.

In the 1970s the J.G. Deagan Company went out of business after producing and installing close to 500 of these systems across the country. Less than 100 survive today.

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