For a brief time in the late ‘90s, Connie Lyford sipped coffee before work to the sound of nearby bells playing ``Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go.''
Lyford grew to love the sounds of the bells, which sporadically hung from lampposts that lined the west side of South Broad Street. Most days before work, she listened from her then-apartment behind the Academy of Music.
There was “just something special about it,” Lyford said. “It made Philadelphia a little unique.”
The 39 small, cast-bronze Avenue of the Arts Bells rang for their first time on Oct. 3, 1996, at a sidewalk ceremony that marked the completion of a $15 million South Broad renovation. The bell project cost $190,000.
But at some point, they went silent — and never rang again.
Today, the bells still hang between Chestnut and Carpenter Streets.
The Curious Philly portal invites readers to ask the Inquirer and Daily News questions about the city and region. Lyford was among multiple readers who wrote in wondering what happened to the bells that once chimed — and what it would take to hear them ring again.
Lyford has been on the hunt for answers for more years than she can remember. When she noticed the quiet, she started writing letters for answers — to the Inquirer, to then-Mayor Ed Rendell, and to the Avenue of the Arts Inc. — but says she never got any.
The Netherlands-made bells “haven’t been ringing for 20 years” and can no longer be made to work, said Paul Beideman, president of Avenue of the Arts Inc. Inquiries from residents about the bells prompted Beideman to investigate last year.
He spoke with the company that acquired the now-defunct company that installed the bells about how they worked.
“With the help of folks from the Academy [of Music], we went and looked for the main terminal box, where the wiring went out to each individual bell, and the testing showed that a lot of that wiring just isn’t in place anymore,” he said.
Beideman said he doesn’t know why exactly the bells stopped ringing, but said they’re a long way from chiming again.
"All the infrastructure is gone. The wiring out to them doesn't function anymore,” Beideman said. "You'd have to start from the beginning to reconstitute the system."
The computerized keyboard and system that existed in the Academy of Music, that at one point controlled the bells, don’t exist anymore either, he said.
Beideman said that there are no plans to reinstate the bells.
The bells were proposed as part of street and sidewalk improvements by a California composer and sound artist, Robert Coburn, who beat out about 457 other applicants in a national competition for public art projects.
From his work office at Broad and Chestnut Streets, Anthony Miksitz could hear the bells. At the time, he and colleagues riffed about what those loud sounds were. They were “almost like a clock going off,” he said.
Miksitz said he only recalled the bells going off the year they were dedicated, “then it kind of stopped.”
When they did chime, Miksitz said, “it was kind of odd, because it would ring up and down the street."
“One would ring maybe at Chestnut, and then another would ring down at Locust, and then another at Walnut,” he said. "They were kind of like in a back-and-forth pattern. ... But it was more of a random back and forth, it wasn’t like they went sequential down the street.”