With Virginia Union University celebrating its 150th anniversary next year, Dianne Watkins is working to ensure one of its signature features rings out for the school’s mission.
VUU’s bell tower, built as Belgium’s contribution to the 1939 World’s Fair, has been heralded as a masterpiece of art deco design and a gesture of peace. Belgium offered the tower to a university when it couldn’t retrieve it in 1940, with Europe in the throes of Hitler’s occupation.
Watkins, leading a committee dedicated to restoring the tower, says that of the 27 schools that asked for it, the Belgians thought giving it to a black college would be the best gesture.
“They were kind of embarrassed by King Leopold’s atrocities in the Congo,” Watkins says. “This was one way of making amends.”
Her uncle, former university President John Ellison, raised around $500,000 to bring the tower from New York to Richmond with the help of John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Watkins, who grew up on campus in the ’40s, says it’s been the centerpiece of the university since its arrival. She recalls the bell tower as a focal point for visiting leaders who couldn’t rent hotels in Richmond because they were black.
“It provides a place to go, a place to see to help students find their way,” Watkins says. “I would say it’s the beacon of the campus. But it doesn’t stand out like it could, and should.”
The tower, whose steel supports comprised the structure of what became the campus’ Belgian Friendship Building, has long needed repair. Watkins group, Bells for Peace, has worked on restoration money since 2004. There have been milestones, such as brick replacement and an electric carillon installed in 2011 to replace the missing bells — which went to Herbert Hoover, who gave them to Stanford University. But there’s more work to be done, and she hopes the school’s anniversary will highlight the tower’s needs.
The tower continues to get support from afar, including a Belgian bank and several art deco preservation societies across the country. The Art Deco Society of Virginia will hold a ball to benefit Bells for Peace on Jan. 24 at the Bolling Haxall House.
In addition to the group’s long-term goal of raising $1.2 million for cast bronze bells, Watkins hopes to figure out how to light the tower properly next year. Bells for Peace has been experimented with lighting it since August.
“It’s a pinnacle,” she says. “What we’re trying to do is make it even brighter against the Richmond skyline.”