From a vista south of the Brown Family Environmental (BFEC), the spire of Old Kenyon Residence Hall rises just above the trees that fence the Gambier Hill. Atop the gentle slope of the eastern Village, Peirce Hall and its Philander Chase Memorial Tower salute travelers of the Kokosing Gap Trail. On a clear night, the stars glance down at Ascension Hall’s now-abandoned astronomy tower.
Kenyon College is well-known for its collegiate gothic architecture, replete with looming towers and sandstone facades. These towers, while a marvel to examine from outside, rarely enjoy inside visitors. The Collegian received permission from Director of Facility Operations Steve Arnett to tour the inside the Ascension astronomy tower and upper floors of the Philander Chase Memorial Tower. Here is what we found:
The Philander Chase Memorial Tower in Peirce Hall climbs beyond 144 winding steps to open on a panoramic view of Kenyon’s campus. The several rooms that subdivide the Tower — which were home to art studios after the department’s inception post-World War II — now lie empty, save the stairs pushing upward. The occasional piece of graffiti decorates the wall, and a few Keystone Light cans litter the floor. Nowadays, the tower goes unused and access is typically restricted, but a radio repeater is stationed inside, allowing radio communications between College staff members, Campus Safety officers and Knox County law enforcement.
Peirce Hall — the portion which includes the tower, that is — was designed by Alfred Granger, Class of 1887, and completed in 1929. College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Thomas Stamp ’73 described the Tower’s construction as a way to memorialize the College’s founder in “stone and mortar.” Before Peirce’s construction, the only memorial to Chase was a memorial tablet in the Church of the Holy Spirit. The very top of the tower, just beneath the weathervane, features alternating reliefs of owls and asphodel. These motifs nod to the “Kokosing Farewell,” as Kokosing roughly translates to “river of the little owls,” and the asphodel flower is mentioned in the song’s final verse. The weathervane itself was modelled on the silhouette of William Foster Peirce, 12th president of the College.
The astronomy tower of Ascension Hall was used for experiment and observation for nearly 90 years, from its completion in 1860 to approximately 1950. (The current Franklin Miller Observatory was completed in the fall of 1993.) The tower’s wooden ceiling features an aperture allowing glimpses of the sky above, and the ceiling could once rotate so as to provide vantages from all angles.
Few current Kenyon students have seen the inside of the astronomy tower. And while the interior is not much to behold — a picturesque view of Samuel Mather Hall notwithstanding, the tower features little besides cobwebs and old file boxes — several students have managed to sneak inside. Some of their names are inscribed on the tower’s wooden walls.
Even fewer have glimpsed inside the bell tower of Old Kenyon Residence Hall. The way inside was deemed too dangerous to allow the Collegian’s entrance, but some students have braved the journey as recently as 2016. Old Kenyon, the oldest surviving building on campus, had its bell installed as a campus timepiece, and it tolled the hour throughout the day. This function was discontinued when the Church of the Holy Spirit received its bell tower in 1873, but the bell continued its tolling for special occasions. These included ends of the World Wars, the inauguration of new College presidents and football wins,. Of these functions, the bell has recently only rung for inaugurations, the last of which occurred in 2013 for President Sean Decatur. Because of its limited use, the clapper — the free-swinging metal piece inside a bell — has actually been removed from the tower itself, so as to discourage student ventures into the belfry.
Caples Residence Hall might be the tallest building in Knox County, but the forbidden towers of Kenyon, with locked entryways and forgotten history, loom ever more large in the imagination.