Sitting in his office beneath the choir loft of a deconsecrated church in Cincinnati, James Verdin can't hear the World Peace Bell toll from across the Ohio River. But this fall the world's largest swinging bell -- a 33-ton behemoth designed by Verdin's company for the Newport, Ky., Millennium Monument -- chimed every hour in the days following September 11. Verdin's phones were ringing too, with requests for patriotic carillon music and, of course, for bells. In American minds, bells are linked inextricably with freedom.
Bells are also linked inextricably with the Verdin Co., a fifth-generation family business. Francois de Sales Verdin launched the company in 1842 after journeying from his family's native France to install a tower clock in Cincinnati's Old Saint Mary's Church. By making and repairing such clocks, he learned about the bells inside the towers, and in the late 1800s the company began making hardware to hang bells.
BELLWETHER: James Verdin's company keeps alive a craft no longer taught in any trade school.
More than a century later, president James Verdin runs a $20-million company that produces clocks, bell and clock towers, glockenspiels, and -- in a nod to the 21st century -- digital electronic carillons. Twenty years ago 80% of Verdin's clients were churches; today the company is as likely to build a tower clock for Euro Disney as to restore a carillon for the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. And although street clocks went out of vogue in the 1920s, Verdin resuscitated the analog timepieces in the 1980s for small towns undergoing Main Street revivals.
The 175-employee company has also become an anchor in restoring the city's down-at-the-heels Over the Rhine section. There, Verdin's headquarters and corporate museum are housed in the 19th-century Saint Paul's church, one of 11 area buildings the company has renovated and, in some cases, saved from demolition.
A Netherlands foundry handles casting, but the company still tunes its products and builds their mechanical hardware. In its riverside factory, rows of bells -- tarnished with age and sprinkled with bird droppings -- await restoration. A third of those were made by now-defunct companies -- testimony to the passing of a craft. "You can see why there's no competition," says Verdin. "No one else today knows how to do this stuff."
Copyright © 2001 Ed Engel.
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